A legacy of Franciscan art
BY FR. FRANK JASPER, OFM
Even though her studio was cluttered with easels, half-finished projects, driftwood and scraps of paper with sketches, Sr. Kay Francis Berger, OSF, produced magnificent works of art for her community, the Church and the Franciscan world. Kay left us with a lasting legacy when she died on Good Friday in Joliet, Ill., at the age of 83. She was a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate.
I first met Kay Francis at Bishop Luers High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., where I taught for a short period. Other friars worked with her for years and they developed deep friendships. Fr. Joseph Rayes invited her to teach the novices at Oldenburg and there she became even more intimately involved with our province. She attracted people to her artistic world and folks felt right at home in her cluttered setting. You could tell everything was a "work in progress." She would sketch effortlessly as she talked with people. Her studio was always a hub of activity with people coming to inspect her latest creations.
Trained at the Catholic University of America and the University of Notre Dame, Kay Francis loved sculpture the best, but she also excelled at metal working, water color, pastels, pencil, charcoal and tapestry. She’d use whatever materials were at hand to create something imaginative and beautiful.
Her main themes involved St. Francis and St. Clare. We accused her of putting her friend Joe Rayes’ nose on Francis. She never denied it. But, her images of Francis and Clare became iconic in the Franciscan world and are still used regularly. As Kay Francis became more arthritic, it was difficult for her to work the clay and so she concentrated on water colors and tapestries. As her disease progressed, the hands and feet of Francis became more distorted, reflecting her own changes.
Frs. Michael Chowning, Carl Langenderfer and Rock Travnikar commissioned Kay Francis to do works at their parishes—murals in the parish hall, Our Lady of the Mines and large sculptures for a mausoleum. Her artistic works reside all across the country.
After a long struggle with dementia, Kay Francis died at Our Lady of Angels Nursing Home in Joliet on April 14. Good friend Sr. Joan Clare Wisner, OSF, predicted that day because of Kay’s great love for the Crucified. At her funeral on April 18th at Our Lady of Angels, her artwork played a prominent role.
Kay Francis was truly a gift to the Church and to the Franciscan world. Even though she is no longer with us, her classic art will remain as a tribute to her love of nature and especially to her love of Francis and Clare.