Sister Joselle Orlando: A Life of Art, Faith and Service

Here’s a follow up to a freelance article I wrote about artist and educator Sister Joselle Orlando of Syracuse. In our original interview, Sister Joselle told me a few stories that could not be included in the short magazine piece and web article published by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities, and so I’ve decided to collect them here.

With her short stature, salt-and-pepper hair and tendency to talk with her hands—hands that have labored for many years—you could easily picture Sister Joselle Orlando as an Italian grandmother standing in a kitchen, stirring a pot of pasta fagioli (pasta beans) on a cold winter night. But these days Orlando, 74, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Syracuse, New York, stays active by working on personal art projects, teaching art classes, and serving as a hospital volunteer.

Sister Joselle Orlando

Sister Joselle Orlando. Photos by Francis DiClemente.

At the Franciscan Art Studio on the grounds of the Spirituality and Nature Center at Alverna Heights in Fayetteville, she currently teaches adult watercolor classes, hosts “art as pray” sessions, and offers private art lessons. To find out more information, go here.

“Over My Dead Body”

As a young girl growing up in an Italian-American family in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Orlando loved to draw and her father, Salvatore, a machinist who worked in an airplane factory, showed her how to blend colors with crayons. Her mother, however, opposed her daughter’s budding creativity and wanted her to focus on the fundamentals of her education. Orlando says her mother, Mary Carmella, a homemaker and seamstress, once told her, “You go and learn your spelling and you’re not coming out of that room until you know them.”

But as a rambunctious child, Orlando says she rebelled against her mother.

“It took me until about fifth grade before I actually learned how to read or how to do math. So I fought with my mother all through the early stages of my education,” she says. “But I always loved drawing and I knew that I could sing. So the fact that I couldn’t read or spell or do math, once we had music or art, I had more confidence, so that kind of balanced it out.”

When she was in fourth grade, Orlando’s family moved to a neighboring town and the Felician sisters from Lodi, New Jersey, educated her. Through the Felicians, as well as her parish church, Orlando found herself drawn to St. Francis of Assisi, and her affection for the saint strengthened her faith in the Lord and sparked a desire in her to pursue a religious life.

“When I was 18 and ready to graduate, I finally said to my mother, ‘Mom, I’m going to enter the convent.’ And she said, ‘Over my dead body you’re going to enter the convent.’”

Orlando says her mother wanted her to become a secretary. But Orlando followed her instincts. She wrote to the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse and they wrote back and welcomed her into the community.

She recalls the pain of leaving home on Sept. 1, 1959, and beginning her new life. “My mother would not come with me that day, she was sobbing terribly. My dad and my brother, my future sister-in-law, and I drove to Syracuse and they dropped me off at the back door. They left and I entered the convent. It was a bit of a dramatic way of entering the community, but I really knew that this was my call from God.”

Sharing Knowledge about Art and Life

Because the Sisters of St. Francis recognized Orlando’s artistic talents, she says the community wanted her to pursue an education in art with the goal of becoming a teacher. Orlando received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and education from Syracuse University in 1974. She later earned a master’s degree in art education from SU and a master’s in religious studies from St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia.

Assumption Church, a watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Assumption Church, a watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Orlando spent more than 40 years in the field of education, teaching at both the elementary and secondary levels, and her profession became a calling, as she derived joy in molding students and helping them to develop their artistic skills.

She says, “I love to teach and to see how either children or adults evolve and discover talent within themselves and can say to themselves, ‘Oh my God, I did this.’”

Sister Jacqueline Spiridilozzi, who is also a member of the Sisters of St. Francis, has known Orlando for more than 40 years and says her vivacious and free-spirited personality is reminiscent of the character Maria from The Sound of Music. Spiridilozzi says Orlando always gave her students the “space, encouragement, and direction” needed to “bring out the best, promote the potential.”

Orlando has mentored many students throughout her career, including Sarah Guardia-Weir. Guardia-Weir met Orlando when Guardia-Weir was a freshman at Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton, where Orlando taught art and served as a campus minister from 1995 to 2007.

Guardia-Weir says Orlando “showed me so many tricks that advanced my art skills and creativity.” She credits Orlando for helping her to get accepted into the demanding architecture program at Syracuse University.

But the relationship went beyond just the teaching of technical skills. While studying at SU, Guardia-Weir reconnected with Orlando, who was working and living in Syracuse at the time.

She says Orlando “taught me the power of friendship and the enjoyment of life through art … to have an adventure and trust in God’s path.”

Guardia-Weir graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a minor in ceramics. She works at an architectural firm in New Jersey and remains active in art, making crafts for her family and friends.

And she remembers some inspirational words Orlando shared with her that still resonate today. “I was worried about aging and worried that life might get boring as my young ideas fade,” Guardia-Weir says. “But Sister explained, ‘As an artist, I can assure you, even at my age that the gift of imagination will never die.’”

Challenged by Jerome Witkin

Bright sunlight streams through the windows of the converted chicken coop that now serves as Orlando’s art studio in Fayetteville.

On this morning, a clear subfreezing day in late February of 2015, Orlando sits at a long table, working on a bright watercolor painting of St. Marianne Cope dressed in her habit and standing in a Hawaiian setting.

Sister Joselle Orlando in her studio.

Sister Joselle Orlando working on a watercolor painting in her studio in Fayetteville, New York.

St. Marianne was a Sister of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities. She helped to found St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse in 1869 and later devoted her life to caring for those afflicted with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in Hawaii. She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 21, 2012.

Orlando feels a close bond with Marianne and has produced many watercolor works depicting her, including some pieces for the Saint Marianne Cope Shrine and Museum in Syracuse.

Orlando dips her brush in water, swishes it around, dips her brush in paint, and applies it to a white-yellow flower seen in the foreground. Later, she rises, walks a few feet, and points out a print of what she considers her favorite painting. It’s an image of dark cave area with a face visible in the scene.

Close-up of watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Close-up of a watercolor painting by Sister Joselle Orlando.

She painted the piece in 1990 while she was a master’s student at SU, and she recounts how one of her art professors, renowned figurative painter Jerome Witkin, taught her an important lesson about overcoming creative challenges.

In Witkin’s class students had to create a series of large-scale oil works, but they could only use two primary colors plus black and white.

“I painted St. Marianne leaning over a woman in a wheelchair on a beautiful Hawaiian beach,” Orlando says.

Orlando used red and yellow as her primary colors and had worked on the painting for several hours when Witkin came to critique it. As he inspected the piece, Orlando explained to him how Mother Marianne and the other Franciscan sisters had treated patients with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii.

Orlando recalls Witkin’s comments. “He said, ‘And they’re getting close to death, aren’t they?’ I said, ‘Yes, they were dying.’ He said, ‘Well get rid of the sunset, get rid of the beauty … and show me that they’re suffering with death.’ And he walked away. That was Friday afternoon. They were due Monday. And I took my turpentine, washed the whole thing. I was swearing, I was so angry at Jerome.”

Orlando regained her composure and directed her energy toward the canvas, working over the weekend to paint a darker palette according to Witkin’s instruction, choosing red and blue as her primary colors.

The final scene depicts a leprous woman seated in a wheelchair and the woman appears to be part of a cave. The viewer can also see a leprous child’s face in the canvas, and the only source of light is the small figure of Mother Marianne entering the gloomy cave.

For Orlando, Marianne symbolizes the only source of hope for the desperate victims of Hansen’s disease.

Witkin praised the revised work and called it the best piece Orlando had ever done. But Orlando told him, “If I take this home and show the sisters, they’re gonna think I’m in a state of depression, it’s so dark.” She says Witkin then replied, “You don’t go down to the level of your audience, you bring them up to your level.”

Art as Prayer

One way Orlando combines her artistic and spiritual pursuits is by teaching an “art as prayer” class, in which non-artists learn how to use simple watercolor techniques as a language of prayer; a session is scheduled to be held in her studio in September.

During the retreats, Orlando incorporates the symbol of the mandala as an impetus for meditation. The mandala is a sacred circle that “represents the dialogue between the visible and the invisible, earth and heaven, the conscious and unconscious.” Students engage in quiet reflection, learn to paint mandalas, and share their prayer experiences.

A watercolor painting of a mandala by Sister Joselle Orlando.

A watercolor painting of a mandala by Sister Joselle Orlando.

Orlando says the “art as prayer” program helps to enrich the faith lives of participants and gives them confidence in their creative abilities.

“I tell them, ‘It is not the product that you’re going to be displaying in a museum, it is your experience that you have when you’re using simple art tools. It’s what you feel inside.’”

Hospital Volunteer

In her community work, Orlando serves as a volunteer in the Surgical Waiting Room at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center.

She interacts with the family members of patients who are in surgery, engaging them in a conversation and listening to their concerns.

Spiridilozzi, who serves as a coordinator for the sister volunteers at St. Joe’s, says Orlando possesses the ability to reach out to others, even strangers, and her presence provides support and strength to patients and their families.

“She kinda has a natural gift for being empathetic and sympathetic,” Spiridilozzi says. “She’s got that warm Italiano heart, and you know she’s just a natural with people.”

Orlando says she doesn’t ask the people she meets what faith they are, “because it doesn’t matter,” but she tries to allay their fears through an informal connection and the power of prayer.

“It’s sharing part of my spirituality with them and letting somebody know that God still loves them,” she says.

Orlando also privately reflects on her encounters with the family members. She will go to an upper floor at the hospital, look out at the view of the city of Syracuse, and pray for the people she has come into contact with. Her prayer is a simple one, summed up with the words: “Oh God help them.”

“You Don’t Go Singing in the Shower”

Inside Orlando’s art studio, a propane heater hums briefly before shutting off. Orlando stands over it, pushing some buttons and trying to coax the heater to stay on; she makes a plea to St. Anthony and then says in a singsong voice, “do your thing, do your thing, don’t go out again.” But when her attempts to revive the heater fail, she walks back to her seat, picks up her brush, and resumes working on the watercolor painting of Mother Marianne.

Sister Joselle in her studio.

Sister Joselle in her studio.

Her determination to create art and contribute to community life remains strong despite her age. And blessed with good health, she says she has no intention of slowing down her ministry as an artist, teacher, and volunteer. “I have longevity in my family. My dad died at 102 and he was still sharp … and my mother was in her nineties, so I have about another 25 years to go, so hang around.”

Orlando also says she has no regrets about the direction she chose when she professed her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience more than 50 years ago. She believes that what she gave up to God when she entered the convent has come back to her more than a hundredfold.

“And I know that gifts that are given to us to share are not just for us. You don’t go singing in the shower,” she says. “Gifts that are given to us are given for others, and the more you give the more has come back to me.”