Teacher and iconographer who married love of art and God

SR ALOYSIUS McVEIGH: SR ALOYSIUS McVeigh, who died on Christmas Day, was a respected teacher and school principal in Derry for…

SR ALOYSIUS McVEIGH:SR ALOYSIUS McVeigh, who died on Christmas Day, was a respected teacher and school principal in Derry for more than half a century but it was her work as an iconographer for which she will be best remembered.

Many of her works, which are now internationally acclaimed, are to be found in churches throughout Ireland. She was 85.

Born in Dungiven, Co Derry, in 1923, Bridie McVeigh was one of eight children. She entered the religious life as a 17-year-old at the Sister of Mercy Convent at Pump Street in Derry and this was to be her principal base for the remaining 68 years of her life.

After making her first vows in 1943 she dedicated herself to the religious ministry of education. She taught in a number of primary schools in the city before joining the staff of St Mary’s College in Creggan where she taught art. She eventually became principal, serving for most of the 1970s in an area badly affected by the Troubles.

Though more than capable of taking a tough line when necessary, she hated confrontation and was known to suffer migraines after having to punish a pupil or discipline a member of staff.

It was at the end of this stressful period that she sought, and was granted, a sabbatical that led her to take up an offer to study Fine Arts at America’s prestigious Yale University, one of the few Irish people to have undertaken such a course.

She was to later admit that the principal reason she accepted the Yale invitation was the promise of her own studio.

On her return to Ireland she was to spend six years lecturing in art at St Mary’s teacher training college on the Falls Road in Belfast before returning to Derry to spend the last 22 years as artist in residence at the Playhouse, a creative centre for artists and crafts people.

Always interested in young people and what they were doing, she found this role tremendously fulfilling.

In a recent programme broadcast by the BBC, Sr Aloysius told how her parents, John and Cecilia, were devastated by the death of her older sister, Cecilia, at the age of 15 and how they gained much solace from looking over the drawings and sketches which her sister, a talented artist, had left behind.

It implanted a seed in her about the beauty and comfort art could bring to the human spirit. It was a seed that was to flower throughout the rest of what was to be a very creative life.

Although she was originally very much a traditional artist, her most famous painting, Our Lady of Derry, marked her transition from artist to iconographer. She explained that it was only in later life that she realised her earlier work was becoming more and more symbolic, as if God was preparing her then for what was to be her main mission in life.

Her work as an icon painter gave her great joy in that it married the two main forces in her life – religion and art. She described icon painting as “an act of worship”, stating that the painstaking nature of the work – one painting of the Crucifixion alone took 1,000 hours – gave her time to reflect and to pray.

She often stated that it was not possible to be an iconographer without prayer.

In his homily at her Requiem Mass, the retired bishop of Derry, Dr Edward Daly, described Sr Aloysius as “a creative genius” with “a powerful imagination”.

He also remarked on the “symmetry of the artist” in her passing in that she died on Christmas Day at precisely 25 minutes past 12 on the 25th day of the twelfth month.

Dr Daly added: “Sister Aloysius will live on in our memories. She will most powerfully live on in her many art works in churches, religious houses, private homes and public buildings – symbols of her great gifts and skill.”

Sr Aloysius is survived by her sisters Ita, Rosena, Phil, and Sr Perpetua, also a member of the Sisters of Mercy.

Sr Aloysius McVeigh – born April 10th, 1923. Died December 25th, 2008