To hear Sister Catherine Martin, O.Carm., tell it … well, you’ve got to stand really close to hear her tell it.
“I work seven days a week,” she says, in her tiny voice. “I work straight through most of the times excepting a break for lunch. Occasionally I take time off to visit family and friends in Lafayette.”
The 82-year-old, barely 5-foot-tall Carmelite nun has her art on the walls of the Carmelites’ Motherhouse on Robert E. Lee Boulevard and her residence in Lacombe.
Her work can also be found in homes and offices from Canada to El Salvador and many points in between. Sales were generated by advertising in national Catholic magazines, and it all goes in support of her order.
Each day, she rises at 6 a.m.; then it’s off to the easels and pencils, brushes and pens. Sister Catherine does portraits such as one of Saint Mother Teresa, which she labels "Woman of compassion.” Then there’s the drawing, black ink on white paper, of prophets of nonviolence: Dorothy Day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, all on one canvas. There is a pen-and-ink portrait of Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered at the altar in El Salvador.
Then there are the inspirational cards, 5-by-7-inch watercolor backgrounds with varying imagery, sets of Christmas cards, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, “with verse within,” mother-and-child images.
There are individual prints on linen, Louisiana magnolias on prints and cards, and decorative notecards. Anything else?
“Icon prints,” says Monsignor Doug Doussan. "They’re stunning! The Holy Face of Jesus, Archangel Michael, the Mother of Tenderness … ”
“Sister Catherine’s father was also an artist,” Doussan says. “He did backgrounds for the theater. He did backgrounds for school plays and other institutions including Mardi Gras events. One day he left an almost-completed painting to go to the paint store. While he was gone, his then 5-year-old daughter, Catherine, picked up a brush and started painting on his nearly completed work. Well, he came home and saw what she had done and he praised her for her work.”
“I wanted to help him out,” Sister Catherine says. “I knew he’d be happy to see me helping him. He walked in and after a bit of silence, he said, ‘That is beautiful!'
"That was the beginning of my journey as an artist. That story was told at my father’s funeral.”
Just as Sister Catherine knew early in life that she would be an artist, she also knew early on where she'd practice that art.
“I attended Mount Carmel Elementary School and Mount Carmel High School,” she says. “Nuns at the schools befriended me, and that gave me great encouragement toward a religious vocation. When I grew up as a sister of Mount Carmel, I was a teacher at St. Joseph the Worker in Marrero for 14 years with art as my part-time ministry.”
When she decided to pursue art full time, the order of Carmelites offered her the use of a house on property of the congregation in Lacombe. There she developed a full-time art ministry and offered “Art and Prayer” workshops based on a variety of spiritual themes. She also taught classes and served for a time as the vice president of the Carmelite congregation. But in short order, Sister Catherine again returned to her art.
“I am so very happy with my work and with my ministry,” Sister Catherine says, in that whispery voice. All in the room are tempted to lean into Sister Catherine for better audio.
“Lean forward," Doussan says.
“No need to,” Sister Joan Broussard says. “All you have to do is look at her artwork on the walls. That’s something you can’t teach. It’s God speaking through Sister (Catherine). She has this wonderful voice within. It’s spiritual.”
Sister Catherine walks from her studio that is chock-full of the rainbow of yelling colors and soft hues that Sister Catherine Martin, O.Carm., will use to speak for God.
Sister Catherine’s art will be exhibited Saturday, March 24, from 9 a.m. to noon at the Carmelite Motherhouse, 420 Robert E. Lee Blvd., in New Orleans.