During two deeply happy years as Visiting Artist at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University (1984-1986), I was given, daily, the extraordinary privilege of watching Joe O’Connell discover, within three large blocks of limestone, the figures of early Benedictine sisters living missionary lives as pioneers in nineteenth-century Minnesota. I was astounded to see, gradually emerging under Joe’s hands from the rock in which they’d been hidden, a contemplative sister in lectio; another sister buffeted by bitter winter winds even as she shields a small child from the gale; a group of sisters gathering prayerfully around one of their own who has died.
Watching Joe during the course of two years patiently “freeing” these figures from blocks of reluctant stone was one of the great experiences of my life—spiritually, artistically, and in the realm of profound friendship. My deep happiness at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s was Joe’s gift to me. I see him still, black knit cap pulled down over his boyish haircut, lovingly chipping away at this stones in the Benedicta Arts Center as New Orleans jazz blares from a nearby loudspeaker. Watching him at work was worth a dozen degrees in Theology and in Fine Arts.
Conceptually, Joe was somehow able to create images of visionary spirituality and, at the same time, of acutely knowing artistry. The trio of sculptures whose creation it was given me to watch, manage—I still think miraculously—to be both “realistic” and, not less, thoroughly modern, demonstrating an impressive understanding of Cubism and even of Italian Futurism. Henry Moore. Eric Gill. Umberto Boccioni. Joe knew his stuff! And finally, of course, his work is absolutely his own. Who can explain it? Not I. I look. I marvel. And I believe.
Reprinted with the permission of the Liturgical Press, the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, from Divine Favor: The Art of Joseph O'Connell. Editor, Colman O'Connell. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, c1999. CSB, SJU and SJP Libraries Oversize N 6537.O265 D58 1999.