Dark eyes twinkling with delight, Sister Mary Anna DiGiacomo sat surrounded by her paintings, sketches, and sculptures and greeted the stream of supporters and art-lovers who stopped by her booth at the Intown Arts Festival July 28 in Waterville, Maine.
For many, the very sight of the 78-year-old nun and her artwork was a sign of hope — an affirmation that “something good can come up from the ashes of a tragedy,” as one festival-goer put it.
Sister Mary Anna was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but has lived in this small central Maine city ever since she joined the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament almost 50 years ago. Founded in 1858 by St. Peter Julian Eymard, the contemplative congregation is small, with only two houses in the U.S., and carries on its work of Eucharistic prayer and adoration in a quiet, low-profile way.
But on Jan. 27, 1996, a break-in and brutal attack at their Waterville house drew the Sisters into the national media spotlight. In that incident, a mentally ill man stabbed and beat four of the nuns inside their convent and chapel, killing two and hospitalizing two others, including Sister Mary Anna. She was rushed to a trauma unit with knife wounds to the head, a broken shoulder and other injuries.
“Sister Mary Anna was very hurt physically,” observes neuropsychologist Peter Flournoy, who met and worked with the nun when she progressed out of acute care to the rehabilitation institute at the Maine General Medical Center, in Waterville. “She had damage to the left frontal part of her brain, which affected the motor neurons on her right side. She has had an amazing recovery. Still, she has difficulty with walking and with moving her right hand. This means that as an artist, her life has been majorly affected and altered.”
Even as a child growing up in Brooklyn, Mary Anna DiGiacomo loved to draw “anything pretty.” She studied with a view to becoming a dress designer, then, after joining the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, used her expertise to design and sew liturgical vestments. As her artistic abilities burgeoned, she created hundreds of oil paintings, sketches, watercolors and sculptures before finally building up to her true passion — icons.
“All art comes from within,” she explains, speaking slowly and deliberately. “But icons are something special. They flow out of your silence and your prayer. They speak about God, and they are an enlightenment for people who see them.” Once she discovered icons, says Sister Mary Anna, everything else paled by comparison. “Icons,” she muses. “That's what I was going to end up doing, all the time.”
The 1996 attack changed her plans. Though Sister Mary Anna is beginning to sketch and paint again, using her left hand to guide her right, she is no longer capable of the precision which icons demand. She accepts the loss without bitterness, but some days it's a struggle, she says. “I mean, you can do something and then you try to do it after it's been taken away, but you can't,” says Sister Mary Anna, her eyes filling with tears. “It's no joke.”
But then in the next breath, she can laugh and declare her ordeal “worth it, because I got closer to God. I feel closer to him — not all the time, but most of the time. So I'm happy! And while I'm waiting to go to heaven, I'm painting and sketching a little.”
Joyce Atkins is glad of that, because she commissioned the painting that Sister Mary Anna is painstakingly working on — an acrylic of a vase of flowers. It won't be the first DiGiacomo piece she owns. Atkins, who lives in nearby Oakland with her husband and three teenage children, treasures a painting of Our Lady that Sister Mary Anna gave her years ago, when Atkins had back surgery. “I felt so supported by her,” she says. “I went into the hospital with my painting and my rosary, and I was out in 24 hours.”
Atkins, who has known and loved the Sisters since childhood and tells hilarious stories about attempting (unsuccessfully) to teach Sister Mary Anna to drive, was mobilized into action when it was the nun's turn to be hospitalized. She became a daily visitor at the nursing home where Sister Mary Anna was sent to recover, and tried to lift her spirits by encouraging her to sketch again.
“I brought her some National Geographics and bird books for inspiration,” says Atkins. “But it was hard, because her whole right side was paralyzed.”
“Fortunately, Sister Mary Anna is very feisty. Otherwise, she wouldn't have made it,” remarks another area woman and volunteer helper, Yvette (Jackie) Bourassa, of nearby Winslow. Having observed the nun's progress during four or five weekly physical therapy sessions over a three-year period, Bourassa sums it up with a simple, often-repeated, “She's come a long way.”
Seeing Sister Mary Anna back in her studio is “thrilling,” says Sister Elizabeth Madden, who lives at the Waterville convent. For one thing, she says, it affirms one aspect of the spirituality of our baptism, “which is that we should continue to grow until we die. We should keep letting the light within us shine out — letting God's gifts continue to come out to the degree that they can.”
Sister Elizabeth has high hopes for her friend. “I'm holding my breath that the rekindling of her gift and spirit has begun, and that she'll stay with it, despite her physical limitations, and keep giving what is in her. Because her gift is still there, and everyone around her is enriched and lifted up to see it flowing out again.”
Peter Flournoy suggests that Sister Mary Anna and the other Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament have another important message to share. “After they were attacked, people here were in shock, and there was a lot of anger and frustration. But somehow, in their quiet way, the Sisters succeeded in conveying to me personally — and I think to the whole community, as well — a message of utter forgiveness.”
The spirit with which the sisters faced their own tragedy inspires him now, says Flournoy, a Buddhist.
“All my patients teach me things. But the Sisters are amazing. They have been and continue to be a wonderful influence. Right now especially,” he added, speaking just days after the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings and attacks, “I'm sure that all of us in the country could learn from them.”
Louise Perrotta grew up in Winslow, Maine, about a mile from the convent and chapel of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
She now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.