Habit Forming

In a decades-old sketchbook, a Dominican nun and artist takes delight in the array of religious garb sisters wore around campus.

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

When Sister Thoma Swanson, O.P., ’58M.A. was attending summer school at Notre Dame in the 1950s, many of her classmates also were religious sisters.

Her artist’s eye was drawn to the distinctive styles of their religious habits, which varied based on their religious community. Many of the outfits were quite intricate compared to her own simple attire of the Dominican Sisters of Peace.

Swanson decided to document some of the religious uniforms in a small notebook. “We stood in line at lunchtime to get our lunches. That’s when I made the sketches,” she recalls.

The result is a notebook of charming drawings that offer a quaint glimpse of campus life in that era, when female students mostly earned their Notre Dame degrees by attending summer classes.

Swanson spent three summers on campus to earn her master’s degree in art. (Among her professors was famed Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović.) She says her Notre Dame studies opened doors that allowed her to grow as an artist.

She later earned a master’s of fine art degree at the Pratt Institute in New York. She taught for years at Albertus Magnus College in Connecticut and served as a missionary in Peru, where she taught art to poor women. She brought their art to the United States to sell, and the women used the money to buy clothing, shoes and other items needed for their children to attend school.

Swanson is among an estimated 4,500 women who earned Notre Dame degrees before 1972, the year the University officially became a coeducational institution. An exhibit exploring the University’s journey to coeducation, “Daughters of Our Lady: Finding a Place at Notre Dame,” continues at the Hesburgh Library through December 16.

Swanson, a lifelong artist, is 94, semi-retired and living in her religious community in Columbus, Ohio. An exhibit of her work was on display in Columbus earlier this year. “I haven’t made efforts to become a famous artist, although I’ve done well in terms of selling my work,” she says.

Take a few minutes to browse through Swanson’s notebook from 64 years ago:

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine. Contact her at mfosmoe@nd.edu or @mfosmoe.