My Mentor, My Friend
Sr. Nancy Smith, IHM
by Bob Rowe
Six grade, Saint Philip's school, l966. So long ago, yet in
my dreams so close.
We were getting acquainted with our new teachers for the year, both the nuns and
the lay-non-religious and I was feeling isolated, alone and bored as was the
case in those days. (Parochial school, or any school for that matter, is pretty
tough on an over-sensitive, artistic oriented boy in a small town).
The days were often long and tedious for someone who looked out the window more
attention....to stuff that i just didn't get and just didn't care about getting.
The jocks were most favored and the cheerleaders next....but that was worse in
high school-for now it was just isolated fear for a young misfit.
"I recall those front-row grade school days- the jims and janes knew all the
answers, could solve a fraction backwards and sister beamed with admiration.
The window was my escape to freedom I'd climb down every autumn leaf and melt
into a different colored world- Always knowing that my God would never ask a
violet to be a rose."
(from "The Window" a poem by Bob Rowe)
Little did I know that my fortunes were soon to change when a tall, bubbly young
nun, named Sister Philippine came into the 6th grade religion room and
introduced herself. My God, this woman is really cool, I thought to myself.
There was something extraordinary about her from all the other serious academia
minded teachers and nuns. One day she even brought in a guitar and sang "They
Call The Wind Maria!" That was it--I was smitten with love--someone was wearing
the habit of the good IHM sisters and talking like Joan Baez! And she noticed
I recall the time she sketched a whole mural out in a religious image and we all
put the colored squares in the boxes she had marked--all neatly cut from
construction paper and forming a mosaic. She taught us about the Jesse Tree, the
O-Antiphons, the Advent wreath and showed us how they would modernize and
re-decorate the church and what it all meant. That was in the days when "Vatican
11" was ablaze with purpose (hell, the whole world was then...sadly no more).
That year of l966 sped by like wild fire with so many wonderful activities and
memories I can hardly remember them all. It was an oasis in a sea of doubt and
trouble for me that probably taught me more about life and who I was to become
than years of algebra, science or football. I even formed a sort of "teachers
pet" thing and followed her every- where and talked to her after class many a
time, which was something totally unheard of for me--"what's your real name Sr?"
"It's a very common name.....but I can't tell you." (We never did get it)!
Arriving back at grade school to start 7th grade and to see my mentor, my friend
Gone. Ouch. What's going on-this can't be. I've been cheated.
That is life it seems-the best never linger and the worst never go away--just
look at Washington DC if you need an example.
Back to the same old confused, isolation and boredom. For years.
l979...long after graduation and on the road to music I found her
again--teaching in the Detroit area and seeking a degree in Divinity from Saint
John's Seminary....one night on break at a club in Plymouth, she called me on
the phone and we made arrangements to get together and talk..how exciting... I
was nervous but she was great, baked me a German Chocolate cake and listened to
my world of troubles and conflicts. And darn it --she had her own. "You might be
someone who could find an even deeper relationship with the Lord through
spiritual direction," she said, "but I don't know anyone!"..."I will meet with
you." Bless her for that. It was a true and lasting outreach again from the same
Artistic angel as l966. Different but real. Yet, I don't remember why and not
sure when but we drifted apart in communications and I lost track of her again.
My life was speeding fast in those years since, living in Nashville with tours,
records, tv appearances, books and articles from everywhere and
everything....letters and personal encouragement from Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
articles in Time, and USA Today, The Catholic Music And Video Association Award,
Mentoring and friendship from Judy Collins (I am on her favorite artists list on
her website), Love and loss, tears and joy--life goes on...but she was never far
from thought and always in my heart.
2008--the coldest winter in a long while...playing on computer, snowed in in my
beloved yellow cottage, with the white picket fence, near Saugatuck,
Michigan.... bored, I emailed the IHM sisters and asked "Where is Sister Nancy
Smith?!" What possessed me? Would she run like heck...was I being "needy" would
wonder what I wanted? Would she care. She responded.
"So nice to hear from you and I am happy you are so happy and doing so well!"
In all these years past, she has studied and become a world class iconographer,
doing brilliant work-some of the best I have seen and I say this without
prejudice. She is the founder of "Saint Joseph Studio" in Monroe, Michigan, next
to the IHM Motherhouse. Her work is featured in galleries all over the world
Rome, Dublin, Saint Louis and Detroit. She gives lectures, classes in
iconography and teaches apprectices in this ancient and much-to-be admired art
that celebrates the spiritual and the divine through breath taking imagery.
Ancient imagery, dating back to the early church and so deeply sweet, moving and
Just as soon as I can I am going to jump in my car and head across Michigan, on
1-94 to see her, to get a long over due hug, share a cup of tea, many stories of
our journeys and to realize once again-what really matters and just where the
true gifts of God hide--perhaps in the warm smile of a life long friend?!
Some come into our lives for a moment, some come to stay but those who touch the
depths of our heart-never go away.
2006 Mother Teresa Laureate