Starr Beloved by Sisters

by Mary Paynter, OP

Eliza Starr

“When the two Sisters left St. Joseph’s Cottage that Monday evening, Eliza Allen Starr’s gracious form was robed in the soft white folds of the Dominican habit. . . . Her dear friend said to the Sisters: ‘How suitable to her is that beautiful Dominican robe.’”

Who was Eliza Allen Starr (1824–1901)—not a Dominican religious but a woman clothed in the Dominican habit after her death by two of our Sisters? And who was one of those present who wrote the lengthy, loving obituary quoted above that appeared in The Young Eagle in September 1901, signed “Carola Milanis”?

The questions are answered by consulting some of the thousands of records that exist in our Motherhouse Archives. The pen name “Carola Milanis” was used by Borromeo Stevens, OP (1850–1912). But the Sinsinawa Sisters who knew and revered Eliza included many members of the Congregation during the late 19th century—several of whom were counted among her dearest friends, beginning with Ambrose McNamara, OP (1844–1870).

Sr. Ambrose McNamara

Ambrose met Eliza in the summer of 1868 when she was assigned as the first superior of our first Chicago mission—Immaculate Conception (IC). The convent/school was a few blocks north of Eliza’s home and studio on the north side of Chicago, and Ambrose, who taught art at the IC school, quickly became acquainted with the renowned artist, teacher, and art historian who lived down the street.

Ambrose became seriously ill during her first year at IC (1868–69). As Hattie McNamara, she had been an outstanding student at St. Clara Academy before entrance, and she had endeared herself to Mother Emily Power, OP (1844–1909), among others. Her convent obituary states that Mother Emily (who was her same age) was often heard to say in trying circumstances, “Would that I had Sister Ambrose for this position. I could trust her any place.” In 1869, Ambrose was brought home to St. Clara, where she died on June 2, 1870, at age 26. But before that, Eliza had sought and obtained Mother Emily’s permission to do a portrait of Ambrose in her studio.

Ambrose and Eliza quickly bonded in a mutual love of art and deep spirituality. For both of them, the two qualities were inseparable. It is also clear that Ambrose must have introduced Eliza to Mother Emily, who became another of Eliza’s treasured Dominican friends along with musicians like Raymund Cochrane, OP (1850–1906), who was also assigned to IC in 1868, and artists like Catharine Wall, OP (1867–1938), and Angelico Dolan, OP (1860–1947), whom Eliza mentions in letters to Mother Emily. Eliza even asked Mother Emily to send young Sisters to study with her in Chicago, writing, “Oh, have you no postulants, young novices for me to train? Please send me two and let this be my privilege. . . . Will you not, can you not gratify me?”

Eliza worked closely with Borromeo in preparing some of the student art exhibits at the Catholic Educational Exhibit for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and she was also a consultant while “Carola Milanis” was editing The Illustrated History of the Catholic Educational Exhibit, published in 1894. Artwork from Eliza’s own studio was a central part of that exhibit.

In 1894, Mother Emily invited Eliza to spend time at St. Clara giving lectures on religious art to Sisters and academy students. These lectures were repeated during the 1890s either at St. Clara or at St. Regina in Madison for the Columbian Summer School, and each time, Eliza would stay with the Sisters, gladly attending prayers and devotions with them. In December 1900, after hearing of Mother Emily’s illness, she wrote, “Let me know how you are, dear Mother Emily, for I cannot stand the notion that you are not quite as well as usual. . . . May you have the joy of your old time vivacity. . . . Believe me, always, your own sister in St. Dominic, Eliza Allen Starr.”

It was Eliza’s personal dedication to develop the talents of Sisters and prepare them to be excellent teachers—a commitment and vision shared by Mother Emily—that undoubtedly led Mother Emily to decide on the then-extraordinary decision to send Sisters to study in European centers of art and music. After Eliza’s death in September 1901, Mother Emily, with careful consideration, assigned Catharine Wall and Angelico Dolan to study art in Munich and Italy from 1903 through 1906, while Chrysostom Borstadt, OP (1874–1963), and Hyacintha Finney, OP (1869–1953), were sent to study music in Europe from 1905 to 1907.

It was Mother Emily herself who gave the Dominican habit to Eliza Allen Starr—the habit that she was clothed in after death. On April 14, 1900, Eliza wrote to Mother Emily, “My own dear Mother Emily, the beautiful robe has come; it came yesterday, and I hope it will be a wedding garment acceptable to our Lord when I appear before Him! I kissed it reverently, for it was made by hands that hallow what they touch. . . . How can I thank you! . . . And the Dominicans at Immaculate Conception will place it on me properly.” Eliza had written earlier that she would be buried in the white habit “as mine is to be, just like yours, dear Mother Emily, you remember! and that is what I am to have.”

And so the body of Eliza Allen Starr was clothed in the Dominican habit given her by Mother Emily Power as she lay in state at her home/studio, St. Joseph’s Cottage. Eliza would be long remembered by the many Sisters and academy students whom had often been impressed by her open and deep spirituality, her profound knowledge of and love for religious art, and her generous sharing of both. Her memory remained a treasured influence on not only the many artists and musicians she encouraged, but especially on the Sister she called her “very dear friend,” Mother Emily Power.

With gratitude to Cassie Vazquez of the Sinsinawa Archives staff who unearthed the many records referenced in this article.

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