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Sister Mary Charles McGough: An Icon of Hospitality and Contemplation



by Molly Milroy


Mary Helen McGough was born in Cloquet, Minnesota, in 1925 and is an icon to be remembered, spending over sixty years as an educator and artist in the Northland. Her work includes a wide variety of mediums including graphic design media, fabric banners, ceramics, wood carvings, mosaic, and stained glass.

Her Benedictine spirituality of hospitality and contemplation flowed from her daily life into her teaching and art. An exhibition currently on display at the Tweed Museum of Art features her woodcuts and icons and draws the viewer into the life of grace in which she lived.


Educator of Art and Spirituality
After graduating from Duluth Cathedral High School in 1943, she entered St. Scholastica Monastery, taking the name Sister Mary Charles. She made perpetual vows in 1949, and then went on to graduate from The College of St. Scholastica with a BA in Art and English. She eventually earned an MA in Education from the University of Minnesota in 1952 and an MFA in Art from Notre Dame University in 1964.

As an educator throughout the years, Sister Mary Charles taught in the Diocese of Duluth and was the head of the Art Department at the College of St. Scholastica. “I took a basic design course from her, along with several other sisters,” says St. Scholastica Monastery Prioress Sister Lois. “She invited us to be creative with many different mediums. She was such a wonderful mentor.”

Peter Spooner, Guest Curator of the Tweed Museum of Art exhibition, says, “During this time she was responding to demand from the outside. Throughout the 60s she was satisfying commissions for churches. Not small things either, but large carvings and cast pieces.”


The Barn Program and Icon Writing
One of Sister Mary Charles’s long-standing impacts in the community was begun in 1967 and carried out through 1984 when she offered summer classes for children at her place of residence, the Barn. For 17 years she had different sisters help with music, art, science, writing.

Shelby Huchthausen of Duluth recalls her summer class in 1983, “It was a magical experience I will never forget. I can still bring myself back there and I still have my poem book from the week I was there.”

Though she was a master of various art mediums, Sister Mary Charles spent the last twenty years of her life in dedication to the art of icon writing. “She was feeling the call to become more and more contemplative,” says Sister Lois. “It’s such a statement of her own spiritual journey . . . Her own spiritual self was journeying more deeply into the mystery of life with God, union with God beyond this life. I believe her unfolding experience of writing icons became a statement about what was happening within her beautiful soul.”


Her Benedictine spirituality was imminent not just in her art, but in who she was as a person. Sister Lois recalls, “She also saw that her creative work was a way of making a prophetic statement and hopefully bringing into the world a blessing of justice and peace. She was very committed to caring for the poor and calling us all to be women and men of peace in our lives.”


Spooner agrees, “The spiritual journey she was on was leading her. The thread that runs through it all is the figure, the human person, caring for people. I started to see several themes emerge in all of her work that had to do with humanity and contemplation.”


Her artwork is still showcased all across the region. An abstract granite mural graces the outside of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, a stained glass window adorns the chapel at St. Mary’s Medical Center, and a wide variety of paintings and icons can be found in a variety of churches from the local Temple and Twelve Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church to St. John’s Catholic Church in Woodland.

The book showcasing her legacy, Saved by Beauty, is available for purchase at the exhibition and at St. Scholastic Monastery. Reproductions of her icons are available at the gift shop at St. Scholastica Monastery.


The opening reception for the exhibit will be held June 3, 2014 from 6-8 pm at the Tweed Museum of Art. The exhibit will run through September 21 with gallery talks on Sunday, June 29, 2014, at 2 pm and Saturday, July 19, 2014, at 2 pm. The Museum of Art Closing Prayer Service and Reception will be held on Sunday, September 21, 2014, at 2 pm, at the Saint Scholastica Monastery Chapel, organized by the sisters of Saint Scholastica Monastery .


For information call Christine Strom, Tweed Museum of Art, at (218) 726-7823 or by e-mail at



This article was published in The Woman Today Magazine issue of June/July 2014 on page 38.





Museum Location

Tweed Museum of Art

University of Minnesota Duluth Campus

1201 Ordean Court

Duluth, MN 55812-2496

Info: 218-726-8222 or 218-726-6552

store: 218-726-6139



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