It was only when Good Samaritan Sister, Fran Nolan died that others discovered a treasure trove of her private mandala work, writes Debra Vermeer.
BY Debra Vermeer*
Good Samaritan Sister, Fran Nolan had always dabbled in art, but it was when she was introduced to the drawing and painting of mandalas – circular creations, which draw one into the mystery of the divine centre – that her artistic talents found their ultimate, prayerful expression.
It was only when Fran died that others discovered a treasure trove of her private mandala work, and now her Good Samaritan sisters are gathering her works together to share them with all.
Fran, who was much loved, had been engaged in ministries including teaching, formation, spiritual direction, retreat work and working with people with disability. She died of cancer in May last year, at the age of only 58.
Sister Agnes Farrugia SGS, who had been living with Fran for the last five years or so of her life, says she knew Fran’s mandalas were beautiful, and she often saw her drawing them, but had no idea of the extent of her work.
“It was only when I was involved with the other sisters in the community in dealing with Fran’s personal effects after her death that we found the remarkable extent of her mandalas,” she says.
“There were over 200 of them.”
Looking at the mandalas, it became obvious that some of them were prayers related to members of her extended family.
“We found some which were dated and had a person’s name on them,” Agnes says.
“We showed them to members of her family and they were amazed and it brought tears to their eyes, because it turned out that the dates related to birthdays and wedding anniversaries. It was obvious that she had been praying for them on these special days when she drew them. They’d had no idea. It was really beautiful.
“So we gave them to the family members who were named in them.”
But seeing the beauty of Fran’s mandala collection, Agnes and other Good Samaritan Sisters, including Jill O’Brien and Margaret Mithen, began to conceive of an idea to share Fran’s works with others.
“There was just such a tremendous body of work,” Agnes says. “We wanted to see what we could do to share them.”
Initially the group considered putting together a book of the mandalas, but with no accompanying text or explanation of the works, it was felt that any text added would not honour Fran’s intention with the works.
“She was very strong on the process, not the product, and so I suppose we were trying to honour that, but also we wanted a way to share the work,” Agnes says.
Instead, the working group came up with the idea of creating greeting cards and other items with the mandalas on them.
When Congregational Leader, Sister Clare Condon and the leadership group agreed that they should proceed with the project, a graphic designer, Paula Lay, was engaged to choose the mandalas she believed had the most artistic merit and to produce some designs. It is hoped production can begin soon.
Fran’s life journey began in Camden, NSW, where she was born on New Year’s Day 1954. Fran and her seven siblings grew up on her parents’ dairy farm at Picton and she always remained a country girl at heart. She attended St Anthony’s Primary School at Picton, the local high school for junior secondary, and then St Patrick’s Campbelltown where she met the Sisters of the Good Samaritan.
Fran accepted a scholarship at the Wollongong Teachers’ Training College before entering the Good Samaritan pre-novitiate in Canberra’s Red Hill in July 1973. After making her first profession in January 1976 at Mount St Benedict, Pennant Hills, Fran moved to the St Scholastica’s community in Glebe and completed her primary teacher training.
Her first appointment was to Mater Dei Special School in Camden where she flourished, coming to both love and learn from the students, and becoming a life-long advocate for people with disability. From there she was transferred to Charters Towers in North Queensland, before leaving the classroom in 1985 to work in parish pastoral work in Brisbane and complete a Graduate Diploma in Religious Education and a Bachelor of Arts.
In 1992 the Good Sams entrusted Fran with the initial formation of women entering the congregation, a responsibility of which she wrote: “I accompany and encourage others to meet God and to learn the compassion of the Good Samaritan”. This work took her to the Philippines from 1999 to 2001 and again in 2005.
But it was in 2004 that Fran took up the opportunity which would lead to her discovery of a deep love for drawing and painting mandalas. She attended a month-long art sabbatical in Florida, entitled “Art Territory of the Heart”, which was designed for people seeking to explore art as a language of prayer and meditation.
The sabbatical was life-changing for her.
“Fran had always dabbled in art,” Agnes says. “She wouldn’t have considered herself an artist, but that’s what she was. She was very artistic in outlook. And on top of that she was a very contemplative person and a person very well grounded in prayer.
“We could see that in the works we discovered. Many of them contained a phrase or word from the scriptures and you could see that the mandala was the fruit of her daily lectio.”
In 2008 Fran returned to Australia from the Philippines for medical tests, from which breast cancer was diagnosed. After surgery and therapy, she joined the Windsor community in 2010 and returned to active ministry, working part-time as a pastoral worker with disabled young adults and their carers, as well as in spiritual direction and giving retreats.
Among the retreats she gave were art retreats, where she introduced others to prayerful art-making, including mandalas.
Sister Veronica Griffith SGS worked with Fran on some of those retreats and says they always began with Fran encouraging the participants to embrace the idea of their art being prayer.
“Fran felt there was a big difference in making art and using art as a way to pray,” Veronica says. “And she felt it was very important that they know that and to encourage them not to look at and judge other people’s artwork during the retreat, and also, very importantly, to let go of their own inner critic.
“She would encourage people to engage with the Mystery and to ask themselves, how does God, the Spirit, the Divine want to be involved in this prayerful work you’re doing today? The atmosphere would become very quiet as the prayer and the art took them to a deeper, quieter place. They were wonderful retreats.”
Sister Margaret Mithen SGS was another who worked on the retreats with Fran, and she says the mandalas, with their circular structure, tapped into a key aspect of Fran’s life and spirituality.
“Circular designs indicate wholeness,” she says. “And Fran had a sense of wholeness in her life. She kept expressing that in the circle and wanting to communicate it with others. But it wasn’t just mandalas that she did – as an artist her interests were right across the creative landscape, including song and poetry.
“She conveyed through her artwork a great sense of being drawn into God, and drawn into Oneness.”
In a flyer given out to participants at one of her art retreats, Fran expressed the prayerfulness of the artistic process in this way:
“When we enter into creative activities, really enter into them, we enter the realm of spirit, of mystery, and as it were, become partners with God in the effort of creation. Prayer is directing our attention God-wards and when we do this intentionally to produce art we become refreshed, amazed at what we produce and relaxed and peaceful. We realise our intention that we had when we began to pray with art. God blesses us through this process and often too in the images that we produce.”
A lifelong learner, Fran was awarded with a Masters of Arts in Transpersonal Studies from Atlantic University, Virginia Beach, USA in May 2012, just days before her death.
Throughout her illness and the often difficult treatment, she drew a deep peace from continuing her work with mandalas.
“She would work on them everywhere, even as she took public transport to all her medical appointments and treatment, she’d be busy drawing away in notebooks,” says Agnes.
In 2009 after completing a month-long project using mandalas, Fran gave an insight into what they meant to her, writing:
“I am amazed at the healing that continues in me as a result of processing these mandalas. The mandalas have not all been about me. I feel they have posted my mission for others, which is to encourage and lead others to this reality too. I see this being possible in the spiritual direction and retreat work that I am engaged with currently. Further, my ministry with families who have a member with a disability literally forces me to view life differently, to move below the surface to find meaning and hope. These young people have an unpretentious approach to life and are uncomplicated channels of God’s love and life.”
It is the hope of the congregation that by sharing Fran’s work with more people, through the products featuring her mandalas, many more people will be led deeper to find meaning and hope.
* Debra Vermeer is a freelance journalist working in both Catholic and mainstream media.