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The Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon campus is blessed with several types of art. The architecture, paintings, sculptures, photos and literature that is connected to this campus shares the Sisters’ Charism, their story and their core values. The art that is brushed across the Motherhouse, Maryville, Valley Catholic and the surrounding campus strengthens the community and helps people find a personal connection to God.

Art is a unique gift that is available to all of us. Art enables the artist to express and share a personal piece of themselves with others. For the observer, the artwork captures a part of their own imagination and can resonate with them on a spiritual level.

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Sculpture of a young Mary created by Barbara Hertel

One sculpture on campus that embodies the full breadth of the Sisters’ Charism was one of the early sculptures created by Barbara Hertel. Resting in front of Valley Catholic High School is the statue of a young Mary looking up in prayerful consideration of God. It was a gift to the Sisters and to the school, known as St. Mary of the Valley at that time, in 1984. The statue of Mary embodies both the unique gifts of its artist and the Sisters’ model for their joyful and compassionate service. 

The statue’s artist, Barbara Hertel, has been connected to the SSMO campus for many years. Her aunt was Sr. Bernice Marie Hertel (1928-2010) and her sisters are Sr. Anna Hertel (1937-2013) and Sr. Catherine Hertel. The Hertel sisters have been close to this campus since they were very young girls – visiting their aunt and playing on the grounds with their family.

Sr. Catherine Hertel with Barbara Hertel - Sculptor

Recently, the Hertel sisters, Barbara and Sr. Catherine, met together to clean the Mary statue and ponder this gift’s meaning to its artist and the SSMO community. With brushes, towels, buckets and a garden hose in hand, these sisters and best of friends worked together, taking diligent care to clean the almost 40-year-old statue. Joy accompanies their work as they spend time together caring for something that is very special to both of them. Barbara can see how her gift for art has evolved from the sculpture into which she poured so much of herself – taking nearly four years to complete.

Growing up, Barbara did not realize her gift for art until she went to high school at St. Mary of the Valley which was located inside the Sisters’ Motherhouse at that time. She fell in love with art thanks to Sister Frances (Lorraine Schneider). Sr. Frances taught Barbara how to uncover her unique gift of art. Later, as a teacher herself, Barbara applied that learning – incorporating art into many of her own students’ lessons.

“I did a lot of art with my kids. For example, if I was teaching social studies, we would study the art of a particular culture,” Barbara said. “The hardest part about teaching art is convincing kids that they have the talent within them. Many children do not think they can do it, but it is always fascinating to see their amazing results.”

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Barbara Hertel working on the sculpture

In the early 1980s, while Barbara was a teacher, Sister Marcella Parrish, who was principal at that time at St. Mary of the Valley, asked her to create a sculpture for the school. Barbara and Sr. Marcella agreed that they wanted something that reflected the values of the Sisters and could inspire St. Mary of the Valley students to stay connected to God.

“Sister Marcella asked me to consider doing a sculpture before I ever went to art school, but I felt blessed for the opportunity,” said Barbara. “I ordered the sandstone and some of the carving tools in 1981 and worked on it whenever I had the time.”

Sister Marcella recalled her motives behind the statue, “I wanted an image of a young Mary. We were still an all-girls school so I wanted a Mary our teen girls could relate to.” With the idea in Sr. Marcella’s mind, she knew exactly who to ask to create the sculpture. “I admired Barbara’s work and knew she would create a young Mary who would be fitting and inspirational for our students,” she said.

In 1981, Barbara and Sr. Marcella began researching and scoping out the project. They developed a plan and started following it by shopping for the right stone, securing some of the funding and looking for a girl who could serve as a model for the statue. In time, they found, ordered and blessed a beautiful piece of marble. They were also encouraged by several SMV giving their own resources to help fund the sculpture, every SMV senior class from 1976 – 1983 donated to the Mary sculpture. Finally, they found the right model for their project, a 1981 SMV Senior named Julia Oxarango. 

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Julia Oxarango

Julia Oxarango, was a Basque resident student from Idaho. She lived and studied on campus during her time at St. Mary of the Valley. Sister Marcella appreciated that Julia was a Basque resident and a dedicated student; she knew Julia was the ideal candidate. Julia, happy to help with the project, embraced her opportunity to be the statue’s model. She devoted several hours after school posing in contemplative and prayerful positions to help Barbara sketch the right image. 

Teaching and working on the sculpture kept Barbara very busy. She would take advantage of any quiet moment she could to work on her rendering of Mary. The work inspired her and motivated her to attend Fontbonne University in St. Louis where she got her master’s degree in art.

“I really enjoyed chipping away with my tools and watching this human form come to life from the stone – I learned how to delicately sculpt each eye and began to see the architecture of the ear, it was fascinating,” Barbara reminisced. “I actually missed the unveiling ceremony for the statue because I was away at Fontbonne.”

Barbara learned to see art differently at school, but she has always poured her heart into her ceramics and sculptures. Sr. Catherine Hertel points out that she admires the statue because it honors the spirit of Mary, it displays her sister’s artistic ability and she sees the prayer and spirituality that Barbara poured into it.

“It is special to me because it is a gift from my sister to my Sisters, and it is a model of our Mother Mary,” said Sr. Catherine. “A woman who accepted struggle and hardship to honor her God and to love her Son Jesus through every challenge she faced. She is a true model for all of us.”

Barbara and Sr. Catherine Hertel admire the sculpture

Barbara still recognizes her own spirituality in the statue. “It is nurturing for me to create. It is part of who I am,” she said. “This statue was very hard, but it was exhilarating and my faith is mirrored in this statue of Mary.” She created a young Mary who is connected to God by looking up toward Him in a pondering and prayerful position. The Mary statue may have been originally intended for the all-girls school of St. Mary of the Valley, but as the school evolved into the co-ed Valley Catholic, the statue’s reflection of Mary has remained evident for all students.

Sr. Catherine pointed out, “It was originally a model for girls, but we all need the same model – to be compassionate, joyful servants of God. All young people need a model and Mary is a wonderful model for all of us.” 

Sr. Marcella noted, “I’m extremely proud of Barbara and her work. We made good choices throughout the process and Barbara gave us a beautiful and unique gift of Mary that has inspired so many of us at St. Mary of the Valley and Valley Catholic for nearly 40 years.”

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Barbara has always relied on her faith to shine through her art. She was known to bless the clay before starting a piece in order to bless the people who would see or buy her art. “I want to help people realize their spiritual connection to God through my art,” she said. “That is what I strive to do. I believe it helps people.” 

Barbara Hertel has created literally thousands of art sculptures since this statue of Mary was completed in 1984, but as she and her sister care for it, they still see her spirituality and her unique gift mirrored in this early art piece. Reflecting on it, Sr. Catherine shared a story about her artistic sister. “Barbara challenged her students to create their own versions of Leonardo Davinci’s famous painting, The Last Supper. Every single child created something wonderful,” she said. “There was not a single failing picture in the entire class. Barbara knew how to help those children find their gift for art.”

Barbara responded to her sister’s story by saying, “There is no failure in art. Art is an expression of you, art is an expression of whatever you want.”  

That is the unique gift that art gives to the artist.

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