She was born Monica Kurkowski into a Polish family, in Chicago, who later changed their family name to Kurk. She attended the parish school of St. Stanislaus Parish and there first began to paint at the age of eight, from which she graduated to the Academy of Our Lady, run by the School Sisters. Later, while still very young, her family sent her to Europe, where the noted Polish painter Professor Thaddeus Zukotynski taught her the art of religious painting, landscape painting, and sculpture.
Upon her return from Europe in 1893, Monica began to act upon a long-held sense of calling and in 1896 entered the novitiate of the School Sisters, spending the next three years in training as a member of the religious congregation, at which time she took her religious name. Sister Mary Stanisia took her permanent religious vows in March 1899 in Michigan City, Indiana.
At this point, she was assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes Academy in Marinette, Wisconsin, where she taught art to the students, while also giving private art lessons. She taught there until 1905, when she was assigned to St. Mary's Academy in Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, where she spent the next two years.
A noted career
In 1907 Sister Stanisia was assigned to the Academy of Our Lady in Chicago, where she had began her high school studies, and it was here that her artistic career began to blossom. She set up her own art studio there, one large enough to accommodate the completion of murals, and established a Fine Arts program in the school, of which she was the Director. From 1915 to 1922she was the pupil of acclaimed portraitist Robert Clarkson.
Intent on learning more, she studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) from 1916 to 1919, which gave her one of the finest, though more conservative, educations in art in the country. There she studied portrait painting with Leopold Seyffert, mural painting with John Norton, landscape painting with Frank Peyraud, sculpture with Albin Polasek, and—a subject in which she excelled—academic figure painting with Wellington J. Reynolds. She graduated from the School with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and received an honorable mention for especially commendable work in life and portrait painting, a full-length portrait, Her Great Grandmother's Wedding Gown, which was used to illustrate the 1917-18 SAIC catalog. By the time she graduated from the SAIC, her style had changed dramatically from her European training.
In 1921, Sister Stanisia was commissioned to paint the central panel for an altarpiece at the Basilica of St. Hyacinth, possibly her earliest surviving large-scale work. The work followed a composition by Zukotynski, which also hangs in the basilica, offering a rare opportunity to compare the master with the student. She also did works for the Churches of St. Stanislaus Kostka and Holy Cross in Chicago, which are built in the so-called Polish Cathedral style.
Her greatest success occurred in 1926 when she exhibited four canvases at the Eucharistic Congress held that year in Chicago. Aimed toward the revitalization and promotion of Catholic Eucharistic art, the exhibition provided a specific and appreciative audience, and Sister Stanisia quickly attracted commissions. Between 1926 and 1930, she completed an estimated fifty murals, portraits, and devotional subjects, including a highly acclaimed Stations of the Cross cycle (c. 1926) for St. Margaret of Scotland Church on Chicago's South Side.
In 1929 she established the Department of Art at Mount Mary College, an institution of her congregation in Milwaukee, while continuing to direct the program in Chicago. She established the Art Guild of Chicago the following year, based at the Academy in Chicago.
Whether she was conscious of it or not, Stanisia seems to have been part of a growing consciousness in the United States of a purely American Catholic art, one that began to define its own set of parameters and iconography. One indication of the interest in art and specifically religious painting among women religious was the number of nuns who signed the Art Institute's ledger book for permission to take their easels into the galleries and copy paintings.
Some of her paintings are: Portrait of Bishop John F. Noll, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend; St. Theresa; Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 1932, she was awarded a Silver Medal at the International Fair, Warsaw, Poland. The American Art Society commissioned her to paint a portrait of Pope Pius XI, which hung at the former Holy Family Academy in Chicago. In 1934, she also painted a portrait of Edward Kelly, Mayor of Chicago, and in 1933 of Governor Horner of Illinois.
Sister Mary Stanisia spent her last years in the Notre Dame Infirmary in Elm Grove, Wisconsin, where she died in 1967. She is buried at the Sisters' cemetery there.
- Jozef Mazur
- Polish Americans
- Polish Roman Catholic Union of America
- Polish Cathedral style
- Roman Catholicism in Poland
- Tadeusz Żukotyński
- Illinois Historical Art Project - List of Illinois Artists
- Cozzolino, Robert (2001). Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary "Sister Mary Stanisia". Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 833–836.
- St. Margaret of Scotland Church, Chicago "The Stations of the Cross"