Imaging Church: Visual Practices, Ecclesiology, and the Ministry of Art
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"Imaging Church" examines the impact of visual practices on a religious community's ecclesiology. I argue that visual practices potentially encourage others to perceive the church differently and participate in the mission of a community to which they do not belong. Employing ethnographic research and material analysis, I investigate the visual practices of the Congregation of St. Joseph, a Roman Catholic women's religious community. Seven of communities of the Sisters of St. Joseph reconfigured in 2007 to form the Congregation of St. Joseph: the communities of LaGrange Park, Illinois; Tipton, Indiana; Wichita, Kansas; Nazareth, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; Wheeling, West Virginia; and the Médaille community which includes sisters in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Ohio.
My ethnographic research consisted of interviews and participant observation. Between May 2011 and May 2013, I interviewed 107 sisters in the Congregation as well as 17 individuals who were Congregation of St. Joseph Associates (non-vowed members) and/or employees of the Congregation. Interviews attended to the sisters' personal prayer lives, ministerial activities, congregational life and worship, congregational space, and the commodification of images. To gain an understanding of their visual practices, I worshiped with the sisters and observed several ministries. I employ material analysis to examine the influence of images created by and used in the Congregation. Analysis of particular images and spaces employed by the Congregation reveals the messages they articulate and potentially share with those who engage them.
To assess the centrality of practices for examining the ecclesiology and justice commitments of religious communities, the first chapter argues that the Sisters of St. Joseph in seventeenth century France and nineteenth century America articulated and dispersed their vision of the church through their practices (ministries and the production of commodities). These practices provide the foundation for the sisters' contemporary practices and the means through which they work for justice. The second chapter explores the sisters' charism (spirituality and mission) and commitment to justice and how these concepts are articulated in their congregational spaces. I argue that the sisters promote their mission through a visual archive which emphasizes their history and unity as a community, their chapels which display their belief and charism, and their public spaces which attempt to unify the Congregation's visual practices and extend these practices outside of their religious community.
The third chapter argues that the sisters employ visual practices in their spiritual lives and ministries to manifest their mission and to promote engagement with society. I examine these practices in relation to John Fuellenbach's concept of a theology of transformation. Analysis of the sisters' individual and communal prayer lives reveals the way visual practices assist in discerning identity and relationships. I further argue that the sisters' train others in their visual practices through their ministries, including their publications, retreats, and artwork produced in the Congregation. The fourth chapter examines how the Congregation's production of religious commodities evangelizes viewers and encourages participation in the sisters' mission for social and ecological justice. Through their business, the Ministry of the Arts, the Congregation employs religious commodities to assert a new perception of the church and world and invite others to commit to this vision. Through these visual practices in their prayer lives, congregational life, and ministries, the Congregation demonstrates the transformative potentiality of visual practices and offers techniques through which the church can pursue justice.
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