When I was approaching my ordination in 1989, my family presented me with a gift of stoles. My late grandmother sewed my red ordination stole and a purple Lenten stole. The others, including the white stole I will wear around my shoulders this Sunday, were made by the Ecclesiastical Arts Department of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood in O’Fallon, Missouri, overseen for some 55 years by the late Sister Hiltrudis Powers, CPPS.
While serving as a pastor in St. Louis in 1990, I led a group of 7th and 8th graders from my parish through a day-long workshop/field trip on expressing our faith through art and symbols. On a crisp Fall Saturday morning, we gathered in our own worship space, and I asked the group “What symbols and art do you see here?” The youth found it to be fairly bare, and offered only a few comments. We moved from “home” to the first of our scheduled stops – a local Greek orthodox church, with its elaborate mosaics and stained glass. The sexton gave us a tour, and once he realized I could read Greek, he gave us quite a full tour indeed. In contrast to our worship space, this one was incredibly ornate, and from the moment we stepped into it, the youth had no trouble pointing out symbols and art, even if they didn’t immediately know what the symbols meant.
After lunch, we took in the very different style of mosaics and art at the “new” Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Louis. Here, we were in an enormously large facility, which the youth realized lends itself to an entirely different approach to art. Again, the youth were quite talkative, filled with comments and questions and debate, as 7th and 8th graders generally are. Finally, we drove out to O’Fallon for our third stop, and visited with Sister Hiltrudis who gave us a tour of their workspaces and their chapel.
“You know, I designed your pastor’s white Easter stole,” she told the group as we stood looking at a number of stoles being made. “While we are Catholics,” she said while gesturing to her sisters, “our art preaches to everyone who encounters it, and we are glad to have Lutherans and others come to us for their vestments.” She talked to the youth about the choices of fabric, of designs, and of stitching, and of the way in which the various sisters each had their own special gifts for artistic creation. I was delightfully surprised to see even those youth with no interest whatsoever in sewing peering intently at what was happening around them.
“When it comes to you Lutherans,” Sister Hiltrudis went on, “we can almost tell how liberal or conservative you are, or what seminary you attend, by what you order from us.” Pointing to several stoles that were being worked on, she continued, “The more liberal ELCA folks from Seminex like your pastor tend toward modern designs, the conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans from Concordia Seminary tend toward more traditional designs, and the LCMS students from their Fort Wayne seminary (the most conservative of all) choose traditional designs with fringe at the bottom of the stole.” She laughed, the youth laughed, and so did I.
Then she took us into their chapel, and talked not just about designing the stained glass windows, but also the banners and paraments that adorned the space. She told them of working with architects and others to design the furnishings and indeed, the space itself. “When you look around,” she told the youth, “you are seeing the preaching that my sisters and I do. Your pastor preaches in his way, and we preach in ours.”
When we finally said farewell, the drive back to our parish was quiet, as the youth pondered what they had been through all day. We ended our day back in our own worship space, and I asked them the same question I had at the beginning: “What symbols and art do you see here?” Suddenly, the words came pouring out, as these youth saw their “home” much differently, thanks in large part to Sister Hiltrudis.
I thought of her again this past week, after the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR was announced, because I knew that Sister Hiltrudis’ superior, the late Sister Mary Whited, had served as LCWR’s president in 2007. Years after taking my youth on that visit, with my Ph.D. in Worship, the Arts, and Proclamation in hand, and with more than 20 years of ordained ministry behind me, I still feel in awe of Sister Hiltrudis and her more than 60 years of preaching.
And I will be honored to wear one of her sermons this Sunday once again.
Peter Rehwaldt is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with a Ph.D. in Worship, the Arts, and Proclamation from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley CA. He served for six years as the Director for Research of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, and currently resides in Lee’s Summit, MO. He has taught and spoken in various settings on preaching, liturgy, and the multigenerational nature of the church.