Street Seens: St. Francis of Assisi and Chicago

Today’s conversation is about how a 20th Century Dominican Priest and world respected sculptor, went into a studio and created a Jubilant portrait in bronze of the 13th Century founder of the Franciscans that is currently presiding over Chicago’s Water Tower Place in the office of a Jesuit University’s Vice Chancellor, John Costello, SJ.

But don’t mistake it for one of those predictable jokes that begins, “a priest and a rabbi went into a bar, and………”

That is not to say that Thomas McGlynn, O.P. would not have savored the humor of how his study of Saint Francis, begun in the last few years of his amazing life, continues to surprise so many years later.

statue St. Francis of Assisi by Thomas McGlynn, O.P.

I first became aware of Father Mc Glynn’s work at my parish Church and his, at the time of his death in 1977 – the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on 66th Street and Lexington Avenue, in the “urban village” we explore together in our weekly Street Seens.

I saw the astounding Baptismal Font he created for the church’s Baptistry, where it sits in a circular room on a floor whose marble undulates with stylized waves that suggest the waters of the River Jordan where John the Baptist conducted his baptisms of repentance, one of them for his cousin Jesus.

On the day in 1933 when he sailed for Rome to study art, a New York Times photograph of Father McGlynn, in Dominican habit, showed him simulating the last strokes that completed the sculptures of angels supporting the Baptismal Font. A different and more deeply human face, also sculpted by McGlynn, is in the nearby shrine of St. Martin de Porres, the gentle young 17th Century Peruvian who came to the Dominican community in Lima as a porter and cooperating brother, too modest to aspire to the priesthood.

McGlynnThomas McGlynn, O.P.

Not many yards away in the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, Our Lady of Fatima may look familiar. With good reason.  By the time his fame had begun to spread, Father McGlynn was commissioned by a company that requested images of saints from respected artists that they deemed worthy of copying for wide distribution. Father McGlynn agreed and opted to do, among others, a study of Our Lady of Fatima.  Someone who saw it offered to have the sculptor travel to Portugal to meet the surviving visionary, Sister Lucy, and listen to her recount her eyewitness experience.

In the course of this rare encounter she told him her personal memory of how “the lady” appeared to her and a companion, and she shared the experience of being visited by a gentle lady that urged them to be messengers of peace as their 20th Century world was erupting in revolution and war. Based on that testimony, Father McGlynn abandoned his original sculpture and created one faithful to Sister Lucy’s unique report. It has influenced many if not most of the Lady of Fatima images seen everywhere to this day.

Father McGlynn’s history included years when he lived in Pietrasanta, widely recognized as the ultimate center of marble sculpture. This is the town where Michelangelo motivated the building of a road to carry its pure and beautiful marble to his Rome and a wider world. In the place sought out by his great friend Jacques Lipchitz and other giants of modern sculpture “Padre Tom” became a fixture, a sort of beloved parish priest in the lives and the sensibilities of the people.

His sculptural works include popes, prophets, presidents and saints; biblical events and history’s giants that are to be found in collections around the globe.  Which, of course, brings us back to Chicago.  Pietrasanta’s “Padre Tom” had become known and respected by the designers who were preferred partners of builders and developers responsible for the installation of some of the creative designs of the most memorable urban fountains.

sketchThomas McGlynn’s Sketch for the  Central Court Fountain

One of these entered McGlynn’s life in the late 1960s, when William F. Hartnett, the owner of Lake Point Towers on Chicago’s famous Lake Shore Drive, began to pursue a dream. Hartnett hoped that his building’s central court fountain would become the place to have executed a unique tribute to Saint Francis of Assisi.

The poet sculptor McGlynn was commissioned to submit plans on how he might capture Hartnett’s dream. He began sketching plans, poems and drawings envisioning how he might create a Hymn of the Universe in words that portrayed the saint of the poor and of animals and all the glories of God’s creation.

Fortunately for us, Father McGlynn’s vision is preserved in the book Thomas McGlynn Priest and Sculptor.  In its pages, Saint Francis’ lines in his Canticle of the Creatures are shown with the preliminary sketches the sculptor made in the 1960s near the end of his life. In its pages, we see how the dreams of building owner and priest-sculptor converged as Hartnett’s hope began to take shape in sketches preserved in the book published in 1981 by Providence College Press.

In the sadly, out of print book by Dominican Richard A. (Father Ambrose) McAlister, O.P., we can see the early studies showing an exuberantly joyful Francis, created to be the central conductor figure in a symphonic sculpture.  Sandaled feet on tiptoe he stands as conductor, drawing together all creation’s glories. With baton raised and cincture unable to resist the momentum of his joy, Francis conducts a Hymn of the Universe.  Stretching to catch the music of “Brother Sun, Sister Moon and the Stars,” of a young woman, little children and a glorious population of animals and celestial beauties, he calls forth their beauty and harmony.

Hartnett’s dream failed to come to full reality, but not before an edition of ten 13-inch sculptures of Saint Francis, as Maestro, were completed.  Hartnett secured one of them to give as a gift to his Uncle Frank Pennino. Upon his death, Pennino bequeathed his Saint Francis to Loyola University Chicago’s Museum of Art (LUMA) for its Martin D’Arcy Gallery.

two viewsTwo views of St. Francis of Assisi by Thomas McGlynn

One day, when Father John Costello knew that the Mass he celebrated each day with a small community of LUC Law School students and faculty would be attended by a parishioner of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York (where the sculptor lay in state before his 1977 funeral Mass), he contacted the LUMA curator and secured a short-term loan of McGlynn’s Saint Francis to be displayed to the 21st Century worshippers.  That short term has now been extended to help realize the dream shared by both Hartnett and McGlynn that the generosity of the late Frank Pennino brought to new life.

In the words of his pro-tem host, Father Costello said of the LUMA figure kept near the Chicago venue of Hartnett’s dream, “Indeed he is the saint who came to visit, picked up the baton, went on the road briefly for Mass with visitors from his one-time NYC parish, and returned to the stage in my office where from the 15th floor overlooking the Water Tower throngs below, he continues to conduct. I’d hate to interrupt him….and am sure he’d appreciate a good review.

I have a feeling he’s getting just that from a Priest and Sculptor known to have had a delightfully wry sense of humor.

Opening photo: Tau wooden cross in shape of the letter t (religious symbol of St. Francis of Assisi). Bigstock by Shutterstock.

Woman Around Town wishes to thank Father John Maria Devaney, OP for his story “An Obedient Artist”  and for securing a loan of “Thomas McGlynn: Priest and Sculptor, ” written by Fr. Ambrose McAlister, O.P. and published by Providence College Press in 1981, from which images and references were drawn. And, of course, Father John Costello, SJ Jesuit host to the Franciscan Saint, who symbolizes the Dominican calling to serve as an itinerant preacher

About Annette Sara Cunningham (119 Articles)
Annette Sara Cunningham comes to Street Seens and Woman Around Town as a “villager” who migrated from Manhattan, Illinois to Manhattan 10065. She is currently the recovering ringmaster of a deliberately small three-ring enterprise privileged to partner with world-class brands to make some history as strategist and creative marketer. The “history” included the branding, positioning and stories of Swiss Army’s launch of watches; Waterford Crystal’s Millennium Collection and its Times Square Ball; the Orbis flying eye hospital’s global assault on preventable blindness; the green daring that in a matter of months, turned a Taiwan start up’s handheld wind and sun powered generator into a brand standing tall among the pioneers of green sustainability; travel to Finland’s Kings’ Road and Santa’s hometown near the Arctic Circle; the tourism and trade of Northern Ireland; and the elegant exports of France. She dreamed at age 12 of being a writer. But that dream was put on hold, while she became: successively, teacher of undergraduate philosophy, re-brander of Ireland from a seat at the table of the Irish Government’s Export Board; then entrepreneur, as founder and President of ASC International, Ltd. and author of Aunts: a Celebration of Those Special Women in our Lives (soon to be reborn as Aunts; the Best Supporting Actresses.) Now it’s time to tell the 12-year old that dreams sometimes come true.