Well-known Catholic Dominican artist Sister Mary Jean Dorcy, born Frances Emma Dorcy, entered the world in Anacortes, Washington, on 10 March 1914, as the last of nine children. In 1934, Dorcy became a Dominican Sister of Edmonds, Washington. She claimed that her imagination came from her father and his wonderful heritage of Irish fantasy, and that her technical skills came from her mother, who had incredibly skillful hands. Sister Mary Jean began to practice the art of papercutting, largely of religious themes and those associated with her life as a Dominican Sister. By the 1940s, she was recognized as one of the leading American paper cut artists. Her designs became known worldwide, and by the late 1950s she was considered the top religious artist in the U.S. in her field. She published 26 books during her life time, most illustrated with her own cuttings.
She spent the last years of the 1960s in Mexico, helping to staff an orphanage for 1,000 children. But her hands became crippled in the early 1970s. Perhaps her enduring legacy was to train artist Dan Paulos, who has carried on the tradition of paper cutting and has himself become an internationally known artist. Sister Dorcy’s final book, Spring Comes to the Hill Country, was collaboration with Paulos. One of her cuttings is housed in the Smithsonian Institute. Sister Mary Jean Dorcy died May 5, 1988 after a long struggle with acute arthritis and lung ailments. She had been bedridden for the last 10 years.
Sister Mary Jean’s story in her words
I WAS BORN IN ANACORTES, WASHINGTON, ON March 10, 1914, the youngest of nine children of William and Emma (Knapp) Dorcy, both natives of Michigan who had come West a few years before I was born. My father was Irish, my mother a combination of several nationalities of which Dutch, German, Scottish and Spanish had contributed the most. In assessing the sources of my writing and illustrating work, I think it is probably accurate to say that the imagination came from my father and his wonderful heritage of Irish fantasy, and the technical skill from my mother, who had incredibly skillful hands.
My education up through first year in college was in public schools; I graduated from Anacortes High School in 1931. At the end of my freshman year at the University of Washington, I entered the Dominican novitiate at Everett (the motherhouse has since been moved to Edmonds), Washington, where I made profession in January 1934. After profession I returned to college at the Jesuits’ Gonzaga University in Spokane; here I received my Bachelor’s degree in 1941. Three years later I received a Master of Fine Arts degree at California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.
It would sound much nicer if I could truthfully say that my writing career began with a revelation from Heaven that I was marked for such an apostolate; or that a great talent in writing inclined my superiors to demand that I take up, however reluctantly, that which is mightier than the sword. However, it would be much nearer the truth to say that I began writing at the age of six, because I had the measles and my sister didn’t. Veracity also forces me to add that whatever course my life might have taken, whatever my superiors or associates might have thought, I would probably, somehow, have kept on writing; not through any sense of being a chosen one to do a certain work (though I certainly believe that God plans the means, as well as the end, of our works) but because once you start writing you cannot very well get off the roller-coaster.
The opening gun, then, was an unprinted item about a family of canaries running to eight pages of my mother’s best writing paper and illustrated with my sister’s new water colors (which she had gone to school and left unguarded). My mother, according to this book was “a pertty bird,” a statement that never, to the day of his death, failed to get an amused chuckle out of my father. I was “a plane bird.” Psychiatrists need lose no time over this admission of inferiority; I was the youngest of a big family of gifted children, I admired them unto worship, and to them first of all I attribute my dogged pursuit of the muses. They were patient with my early efforts, and they never laughed at the wrong time. I mention this forgotten manuscript because it was in so many ways typical of what my writing career would always be. First of all, it came about in a haphazard way that has characterized so many of the unplanned joys of my life. Secondly, it established a pattern that I was to follow until it became physically impossible to do so, that I would do both text and illustrations for my books, simultaneously and without any conscious thought about it. Thirdly, it was the first of countless times that family, friends, and community have backed me loyally and given me the help and the materials to continue. This, I think, is the rock on which many beginners founder. A writer cannot work in a vacuum, he must have the inspiration of those around him, and their understanding love.
The only truly brilliant thing I have ever done was to enter the Dominican Order, that vast storehouse of sanctity, learning and charity which allows even a very small depositer to take out great fortunes of spiritual and intellectual assistance.
Early in my postulate, the Mother Superior-against my better judgment, it may be said!-started me out writing for publication. During my novitiate years, my Novice-Mistress made up her mind that there was no reason at all why I should not cut out silhouettes. So, backed by the moral support of my lawful superiors and surrounded by the keen and realistic views of my companions, I went with trepidation into the business of writing for someone besides myself. In the years since then, I have come to recognize just how desperate a business it is, and how tremendously important the press can be; but ignorance was my only equipment at the beginning, along with a dazed determination to be obedient.
In the past ten years my research has settled into a pattern which allows a maximum of help from a discouraging set of circumstances. I have access to an excellent library, well-stocked with Dominican records, and have several times gone to Eastern libraries where Lady material or special Dominican material can be found. Since 98% of these records are in some other language, there is the question of accurate translation, which has been generously handled by the Dominican Fathers with whom I work on any doctrinal or hagiographical matter. Always when I need help, it comes along from somewhere, and people have been unfailingly kind. In ordinary circumstances, I think, people are much quicker to criticize than to praise; perhaps Our Lady- who is my general manager- understands that I am not the rugged sort who can get along entirely on my own, sufficient unto myself and unconcerned what the rest of the world thinks. It makes me very happy to receive letters from Mexico and Iceland and India from people who have read my books, and to know that my silhouettes are hanging on the walls of a convent near the South Pole and in a rectory in Denmark and in Bankok and Ireland. Last year I met a young Dominican student from Hong-Kong who says he learned to read English from one of my books, and there is a young couple in the midwest who each year make up the family Christmas card with one of my silhouettes as background and their lovely children in front. A mission chapel in Louisiana has two of my pictures on the walls, beautifully enlarged and painted by the parishioners; and every Christmas there are the wonderful letters from people all over the world, more than outweighing the inevitable scars and struggles of a tough profession.
There still remains the identifying question as to whether I am a silhouettist who also writes books, or an author who also illustrates. It will be simplest if I just say that I do not know, and have no strong feeling either way.
My silhouettes have been used not only in my own books but also as magazine covers and illustrations, and by the N.C.W.C. News Syndicate as features in all the English-speaking and Spanish-American countries for several years.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sister both wrote and illustrated A Shady Hobby, by Jean Frances Bennett, pseud. (Bruce, 1944), a hobby book of silhouette cutting; Mary My Mother (Sheed, 1945), a Mary book for small children; Our Lady’s Feasts (Id., 1946), a Mary book for teenagers; A Crown for Joanna (Id., 1946), a life of Blessed Joanna of Portugal for teenagers; three volumes of Dominican Saints for Children: Hunters of Souls, Truth Was Their Star, and Army in Battle Array (Bruce, 1946-47); Our Lady of Springtime (St. Anthony Guild, 1953), lyrics; Shepherd’s Tartan (Sheed, 1953), essays on convent life; Fount of Our Joy (Newman, 1955), Lady legends for dramatization; Master Albert (Sheed, 1955), life of St. Albert the Great for children; The Carrying of the Cross (St. Anthony Guild, 1959), meditations for women; she also wrote Shrines of Our Lady (Sheed, 1956), Mary (id., 1958), St. Dominic (Herder’s Cross & Crown series, 1959); and she illustrated a number of books written by other authors.http://www.catholicauthors.com/dorcy.html
Dorcy began writing when she was six “because I had the measles and my sister didn’t.” She loved it and never put down her pen after that. Her art began to blossom when her mother’s paper and her sister’s watercolors mysteriously disappeared one day and an illustrated book about canaries appeared in their place. She entered the Dominican Order when she was grown, and her creativity followed her. There the Mother Superior had her write for a publication, which she did against her own wishes for the sake of obedience. Her sisters in the convent were very supportive of her art as well, and she became quite talented with paper-cutting–usually images of Mary and often with the child Jesus, with elegant flourishes which bring to life the beauty of that relationship.
Dorcy never could decide whether she was an artist who wrote or an author who illustrated. I think the distinction need not be made when someone is so brilliant at each.
Her silhouettes were used in her own books, but also as magazine covers and illustrations. They throb with emotion; even though we cannot see the details of a face, the art communicates volumes.–Maria Lang, http://marialang.net/scissored-art-by-sister-mary-jean-dorcy/; based in part on David Dorfmueller’s interview (https://www.papercutters.info/SA/ByName/Dorcy_Sister/index.php)
- https://webercenter.org/2018/04/the-paper-cut-artwork-of-sister-mary-jean-dorcy-op/ (artwork by Sr. Dorcy is for sale on this site)
- http://marialang.net/scissored-art-by-sister-mary-jean-dorcy/ (article: “Scissored Art by Sister Mary Jean Dorcy,” March 10, 2017)
- http://www.catholicauthors.com/dorcy.html (article quoted above, in Sr. Dorcy’s own words)