by Mary Paynter, OP
This is the second article in a three-part series in Sinsinawa Spectrum spotlighting the lives of two remarkable Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, Teresita Hession, OP (1867–1936), and Amanda Courtaux, OP (1859–1941).
Two years before her death in 1936, Teresita Hession, OP, was asked by Mother Samuel Coughlin, OP (1868–1959), to write reminiscences of personal “educational and cultural contacts and advantages.” Teresita’s writing skills and sense of humor are evident on the opening page where she wryly speaks of “advantages” in contrast to credits and degrees. She did not have the latter, so she states: “the following notes will give some idea of the days—nay, months and years—of study, research, and actual professional practice, when my slogan ran, ‘Attainments, not Diplomas.’” Her “attainments” were indeed remarkable!
Born Julia Hession in 1867 to Irish immigrants from County Mayo, she attended Englewood High School in Chicago and took courses in stenography and typewriting, describing them as “arts comparatively new at that time, 1884.” She became a protégé of Mrs. R. Howard Kelly, then “the only woman court reporter in Chicago and the best-paid one in the United States.” This opportunity led to Julia’s becoming a reporter in Chicago courtrooms, and she recalled a special case when she typed the testimony of the infamous 1886 Haymarket Riot trial. She also typed judges’ instruction to juries and architects’ building specifications (including one for a “large addition to St. Clara Academy,” a site she would later get to know well!). She had her own office and secretarial business in the “then-new Chicago Opera House building,” and she bought “a Remington No. 2 typewriter, plunking down $100 in cash for it” [today’s equivalent, $2,800]. In her business career, she states that she “acquired new friends and patrons among the foremost lawyers and judges of Chicago.” She later served as private secretary in a large underwriters’ union, assisting an officer, William Fox. His wife was Mary Dodge Fox, granddaughter of the first governor of Wisconsin, and Teresita noted that Mary “had been baptized by none other than Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, OP, founder of our Congregation.”
Her years in Chicago, from childhood on, were filled with opportunities for rich experiences with music, theater, and art. She recalled her piano and organ lessons, attending theater productions (seeing famed actors such as Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and Lillian Russell) and the Chicago Symphony concerts, and spending many hours at the Chicago Art Institute.
However, at the age of 23 she responded to “a clarion call: come, follow the Lamb,” entering the Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation. She was prepared to do whatever would be asked, but she notes: “Strange to say, without a word from me as to the choice of an occupation, my beloved Novice Mistress, Mother Bonaventure, took me by the hand and led me straight to the art studio, where I was to divide my time acquiring skill with both broom and palette.” She taught various business courses at her early missions, and she was an excellent teacher as recollections of her students indicate. Letters from successful Milwaukee businessmen told her: “I never will forget all you have done for me,” and “Every feather in my hat is one for you also!”
While teaching business courses, she also taught art and encouraged efforts at commercial art. Her teaching philosophy was to promote self-reliance and get the student to “prefer his own efforts to the aid of a teacher” whether in business or art. This policy succeeded remarkably with her pupil, 10-year-old Tommy Kingsley, who designed posters advertising his uncle’s Chicken-Shack at the edge of Faribault, MN, and who, she noted, “received a commission,” when they were publicly posted in town!
She recalled: “From childhood the bent of my nature was for art, which I studied and taught for 43 years.” Her evident gifts in art were recognized when Mother Samuel asked her to go to Fribourg in 1917 to begin three years of intensive study of art—in Switzerland, Italy, and France. Her focus of study was the art of illumination—on parchment, vellum, paper, porcelain, and ivory—evidenced in our Book of Days 2020. She also worked in oils and needlework, while developing a “watercolor technique of my own, from study and personal ingenuity.”
After her return from Europe, she spent 12 years teaching art at Bethlehem Academy in Faribault, noting that “aside from all this work with palette and brush, I prepared personally illustrated travelogues on 25 or 30 subjects.” She also translated a number of works from French, including a Life of St. Dominic (an illuminated manuscript of over 500 pages, a book regularly read during meals during retreats at Sinsinawa Mound). Many of her poems also remain in our Archives.
Teresita’s obituary describes the personal qualities that enabled her to relate with warmth and spiritual depth to others, stating that she not only taught subject-matter to her students, but she also “enriched their lives by good advice and suggested readings,” further noting “her gifts for conversation and her ability to quote classical and spiritual authors.” These qualities were clearly evident in Fribourg in 1919, when she befriended and became a lifelong friend of two women refugees: Mlle. Hildebrandt, a German professor of languages, and Mlle. Mathilde Courtaux, a noted French composer and pianist. In 1921, Teresita was studying art in Italy, and Mathilde was journeying to the Mound, becoming our Sister Amanda Courtaux—but their deep friendship endured through their lifetimes.