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Sister artist sculpted legacy of beauty, knowledge

Racine Dominican Sister Monica Gabriel, 93, died on Feb. 16 at Golden Living Center in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A nationally respected artist, Sister Monica also taught elementary through college-level art students in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Her artwork, primarily stone, clay, metal or wood sculptures, was commissioned for various sites around the country, including Texas, Indiana, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Illinois. Among other exceptional pieces, she sculpted the statue of “Christ the Teacher” that stands in front of the campus library at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Sister Monica created a 7-foot, 10-inch tall statue of the Sacred Heart that stands at the main entrance to Sacred Heart School in Racine, sculpting it from a 3,400 pound block of Indiana limestone. She also sculpted a life-size statue of Christ for Racine’s First United Methodist Church.

Sister Monica was also a gifted painter. Many of her paintings and sculptures reside at Siena Center, the Dominican motherhouse in Racine, as well as in countless other locations around the country. Her 18-foot bronze sculpture of St. Catherine of Siena graces Siena Center’s bell tower, and her paintings line the walls of the Siena Retreat Center and other parts of the building.

In 1960, Sister Monica’s art was exhibited at Marquette University, drawing favorable commentary from art critics in Racine and Milwaukee newspapers. The Milwaukee Journal stated: “Sister Monica can make wood come alive to tell a beautiful story sincerely and sympathetically, and without preachy sentimentalism.”

Sister Monica believed “there is a spark of the Creator in each person—and a need to create as well.” She said she found that spark in her students of all ages and, “It is beautiful to see.”

Whenever Sister Monica was asked to explain her art, she typically responded, “Well, what does it say to you?” Perhaps Sister Jean Ackerman captured Sister Monica, her art and her spirituality best in saying, “She truly was a mystic. She firmly believed in the still point deep in each of our hearts.”

Loretta Marie Gabriel was born in Detroit on April 2, 1917. Her mother, Ida, died when Loretta and her three siblings were very young, and her father then married Ida’s sister, Mary Agatha. The couple added eight more children to the family.

Loretta’s artistic spirit and talent were evident even as a child in the drawings she hid away in her sketch pad. She greatly respected her Racine Dominican teachers at Assumption Grotto, and upon finishing eighth grade, she begged her father to let her join the community. At age 16, she was formally received and became Sister Mona, a name she changed to Monica in 1946.

As a teacher of elementary through college levels, she was deeply loved for her kind and gentle spirit. Just last year she received a note from Alton Grobbel, a student she taught on her first mission at St. Clement in Center Line, Michigan, in the 1930s. “Your kindness to me when my mother died in 1936 I much appreciated,” Alton wrote. “I apologize it took me 74 years to thank you, but I sincerely do.”

After heading the art department at St. Catherine’s High School for eight years, Sister Monica taught first at Dominican College, Racine, and then at Holy Redeemer College in Waterford, Wisconsin. Throughout her teaching career, she continued to create her own works of art through various media, and completed a master’s degree in fine arts from Notre Dame University.

Her 17 years spent with the Redemptorists in Waterford were precious to Sister Monica. Even into her last years, she spoke warmly of the relationships and art created during that era. Fr. Dick Mevissen, a longtime friend who presided at Sister Monica’s funeral, said, “I have such warm memories of her as an artist, visionary, immensely talented woman, whom it is my pleasure to be connected with in spirit.”

Story and photos courtesy of the Racine Dominicans and congregational communications director Jean Mullooly.