Special Feature

Marie Henderson, RSM
Marie Henderson, RSM, with
her recent sculpture of Catherine McAuley.


Sr. Marie Henderson uses art to share the charisms of the Sisters of Mercy

Sister Marie Henderson, RSM, ’71 says that she simply wants to make the world more beautiful. As a Religious Sister of Mercy, an artist and an adjunct professor at UDM, she possesses the qualities and skills that have enabled her to do just that.

A talented professor

For 10 years, Sr. Marie has taught students at UDM how to make beautiful pieces of art. As an adjunct professor of visual communications in the School of Architecture, she teaches a four-hour class twice a week. She says the undergraduates influence her by pushing her to be a better artist.

“At the university level, the students come to you with more experience and knowledge of art,” said Sr. Marie. “I teach them how to take their ideas and draw them so other people can understand their vision.” Sr. Marie demonstrates to students how to be representational artists. Students draw from life. Still life, live human models and buildings are the subjects of their projects.

“I have always enjoyed doing portraits. From high school until my junior year in college, I completed 380 portraits,” said Sr. Marie, who was born and raised in Detroit.

One former student, an architect by profession, volunteered to be Sr. Marie’s studio assistant—that was almost eight years ago. He helps her by constructing bases and helping with the armature, the piping and structural pieces that hold up the clay and recycling clay. Her ability to build long-lasting relationships, such as this one, began when she was a student herself, at Mercy High School. There, she crossed paths with Sister Mary Ignatius Denay, RSM.

“Her whole life she was a mentor to me,” said Sr. Marie. “We’d play jokes on one another. She taught the whole gamut of art but she was best known for her mosaics.”

Sr. Ignatius, who was also the head of the art department at Mercy High School, soon realized that Sr. Marie had true artistic talent.

“She was the biggest influence in my life,” said Sr. Marie, who earned a B.A. in Art from Mercy College of Detroit, and also holds a master’s degree in art education, eventually became art department chairperson at Mercy High School when Sr. Ignatius retired.

In 1983, Sr. Marie reached a turning point when then Mercy High School principal, Nancy Thompson, RSM, asked her to create a piece of art for the lobby. At the time, she was reading about Catherine McAuley, the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy. McAuley, through her care and devotion, endeared herself to the Callahan’s (distant relatives). Upon their deaths, she inherited approximately $1 million and used it to establish the first House of Mercy.

“I found Catherine’s story to be gripping,” said Sr. Marie. “She lived in Dublin, Ireland and was doing works of mercy and service with the poor, sick and uneducated and cared for the dying. After becoming an heiress, she established the Sisters of Mercy and assisted in educating women and children, helping them to become self-sustaining.”

Learning about Catherine McAuley resulted in Sr. Marie’s first bronze of her, which is 5 feet 6 inches, approximately her actual height.

Since then Sr. Marie has sculpted more than 100 bronzes in various sizes of McAuley. Her sculptures, drawings and paintings of McAuley reside in places of honor at universities, hospitals, schools and convents around the world in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and in South and Central America.

“Catherine is described as being light-hearted and having a fun-loving spirit,” said Sr. Marie, much like the women whom she joined in the Sisters of Mercy at the age of 36.

Finding sisterhood

Sr. Marie took years to decide to become a nun. As she traveled and thought about her future, she kept returning to her fond memories of the nuns at Mercy High School and her admiration for McAuley. These factors led to her decision to join the Sisters of Mercy.

“For my particular dreams, joining them in their mission fit perfectly. I find that I never look back with regret,” said Sr. Marie.

The Sisters of Mercy have been described as the “walking nuns,” because of their early interaction within the community. They work in hospitals, universities, high schools, elementary schools, clinics and numerous other ministries. 

Sr. Marie, who lives in Detroit, says she often answers the front door to find neighborhood children seeking friendly advice. On a global level, she feels connected to the Sisters of Mercy. She cites the “Mercy Beyond Borders” and an Aids project in Africa as examples of the broader Mercy influence in the world. She considers her work in Detroit as a piece of the collective ministry.

Sr. Marie furthers the story of the Sisters of Mercy through her sculptures of McAuley. After nine months of work, her most recent life-size bronze at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor was unveiled on June 14, 2011 before more than 100 witnesses.

“It was a very special moment for the Sisters of Mercy who were there. As the sculpture was unveiled, we sung the late Sister Dolores Nieratka’s composition of Catherine McAuley’s Suscipe,” said Sr. Marie. “A suscipe is a prayer of abandonment, a prayer of turning yourself over to God’s care.” Nieratka was a UDM professor of psychology.

The sculpture resides next to the hospital’s newly finished chapel near the main entrance. The new addition to the hospital will be completed in fall 2011.

Sr. Marie hopes visitors will inquire about the bronze of Catherine McAuley, and in so doing, learn about the work and history of the Sisters of Mercy. In return, many also will likely wonder about the talented person who sculpted it, and in the process, made this piece of the world a more beautiful place.