Dominican Sister of Peace Sr. Stephana Toomey, OP, died on October 28, 2015, at Mohun Health Care Center (Columbus, OH). She was born on November 19, 1930, in Wilmington, DE, and entered the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de’ Ricci, now the Dominican Sisters of Peace, in 1956. She made her first profession of vows in 1959.
She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Moore College of Art (Philadelphia, PA) and a Master’s degree in Art Education from the Tyler School of Art, Temple University (Philadelphia, PA). She also received certificates from the International Center for Mosaics and Glass, (Ravenna, Italy) and the Aegean Center for Art (Greece).
Sr. Stephana served on retreat staffs at Elkins Park, PA; in Kendall, FL, and at the Lucy Eaton Smith Residence in Philadelphia, PA, before establishing the Efharisto Studio, Inc. in Baltimore, MD, where she and others designed liturgical space and art forms used in liturgy. She received the Fra Angelico Award for lifetime achievement from the Dominican Institute for the Arts of which she was an active member for many years. Some of her artwork, including the tabernacle she created for Dominican Retreat Center in McLean, VA, was displayed in the chapel foyer at the time of her funeral.
In her preaching Sr. Anne Lythgoe, OP, said:
I wish those of you who did not know Stephana could have known her in her better days. When she came to Mohun, her health was already quite frail. So there has been little opportunity to know her lovely smile and the way she laughed, always with a bit of a giggle. She always waved with the royal wave as if her royal highness was passing by.
Stephana came to the Dominicans already prepared for the life of a preaching artist. She spent a few years in retreat ministry at Elkins Park and in Kendall, FL, and on the staff of our residence for women, the Lucy Eaton Smith house, in Philadelphia. But those ministries could not offer enough creative outlet for this clearly brilliant and gifted artist who painted in oil and watercolor and could see what the rest of us saw only dimly. Her vision of the world was hard to contain, and hard for her sisters to understand sometimes.
I remember visiting her at the Lucy Eaton Smith. On the wall in her studio there was a round wood panel. On closer examination I realized that it was three planks of wood all with knots placed at just the right spot, the wood was warm yellow and gold, the “lifelines” of the tree and the swirl of the knots created the impression of three golden angels floating within the frame. She called it the “Glory Panel.” She saw the face of angels in a plank of wood. This is how she preached, not with words, but with visual ideas that engaged us in a dialogue with the divine.
I think the leadership of the congregation back then was probably quite confounded in knowing what to do with Stephana’s enormous talent. Not long after my visit, she earned certificates from the International Center for Mosaics and Glass in Ravenna, Italy and the Aegean Center for Art in Greece.
In 1976, she founded Efharisto Studio, Inc., in Baltimore, MD. Efharisto is a Greek word for thanksgiving, and of course, from it we get “Eucharist.” The work her studio produced has been a source of spiritual food for thousands of people.
In Baltimore, she and her colleagues designed liturgical spaces as well as the art forms used in liturgy, including: glass, mosaic, fabric, wood and iron. Her work can be found in numerous churches, schools and motherhouses: among them the Motherhouse Chapel of the Presentation Dominicans in Dighton, MA; a Jesuit High School in Blakefield, MD; St. Francis of Assisi Parish Church in Apopka, FL, the Franciscan Sisters Chapel in Aston, PA, Oakland Mill Interfaith Center, Columbia MD, Methodist Hospital in Philadelphia, Bon Secour Health System, and numerous other public and private venues. (View her work.)
Stephana was also a watercolorist, producing designs inspired by nature. She designed a medal for the Franklin Mint and work for the Touch and Feel Chapel for Children with Special Needs at the Gallagher Center, Timonium, MD, including a holy water font using a gigantic undulating seashell.
In 1999, Sr. Stephana received the Fra Angelico Award for lifetime achievement from the Dominican Institute for the Arts. Though she received a number of other awards throughout the years, the tribute from DIA meant the most to her.
I believe her strongest gift was in shaping the way people experienced sacred space. Her studio motto was “part of prayer is experiencing the setting.” She made a conscious effort to bring theology, liturgy and scripture to bear on the planning and design of liturgical space and to have that space reverence the local cultural and religious practice of the faithful. The art forms she created were responses to the spiritual longing of those who would use the space, long after she was finished creating it. Themes of creation, baptism, communion, water, fire, earth and sky permeate her work.
In the first reading from Jeremiah, the potter sits at the wheel ready to create from the clay, but when the clay turns out badly in his hands, he simply begins again. The artist always begins again and again and again. Stephana would draw 20, 50, 100 renditions of an object in her effort to express the one final version that was best.
Stephana’s imagination and contemplation were rooted in her deep Dominican heart. While most of us would say that the act of preaching is an art, Stephana, like most Dominican artists, believed art is preaching. Her art gave visual expression to the Gospel.
Efharisto, Eucharist, Thanksgiving. Today we thank you, Steff, for the beauty you have given to the world, for your proclamation of the Word, for your preaching that lives on in glass and wood, iron and paper. Thank you for giving voice to the truth of the Gospel, even when it was inconvenient. You have performed the work of an evangelist. You have fulfilled your ministry.
Rest now in peace, free of all anxiety and care. Allow your God to welcome you to heaven and enjoy the embrace of Jesus.
Sr. Stephana was preceded in death by her parents Hugh and Ellen Vahey Toomey. A Vigil of Remembrance was held on November 2. The funeral took place on November 3. Both services were held at the Columbus Motherhouse. Burial will take place at a later date in Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA.
Memorial gifts in Sr. Stephana’s memory may be submitted securely online or mailed to Dominican Sisters of Peace, Office of Mission Advancement, 2320 Airport Dr, Columbus, OH 43219.
5 responses to “Sr. Stephana Toomey, OP”
This is a late tribute, as I scroll through the history of this blog. As a retreatant and sometime Associate (1999 – 2015) of the Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci in McLean, VA, how many hours of prayer and devotion did I spend in front of the glorious tabernacle Sr. Stephana created. To truly experience its glory, I believe you had to see it in person. It brought me so much inspiration and consolation. I knew that a Sister had created it, and now I know who that Sister was. Thank you, Sister, for sharing your gifts. I hope that the tabernacle has a special place somewhere in the Dominican Sisters of Peace community.
My husband Jim Souder took art lessons from Sister when she was living in Philadelphia.
I met Sr Steff, when I was a Freshman in H.S. I had just moved to Fla. and hated it. I went on retreat and was hooked. I volunteered many many weekends and Steff was a Hugh help. I will miss her. She was a gifted artist.
This was a moving tribute. I regret so much that I didn’t know her. Thank you .
Ann, Thank you for bringing Stephana to life for those who did not know her!!