It wasn’t long before the artistic talent of little Barbara Gwendolyn Armstrong surfaced and began to grow. Her child-like sketches and drawings soon became better and better. She won prizes and contests at school.
“I was drawn to painting and drawing and liked it very much,” she explained. By the time she was in her late teens her gift was blossoming.
As a young adult she converted to Catholicism and was baptized in the French Church of the Immaculate Conception in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She found accepting the Catholic faith easy because she already was a Christian. She joined the choir because she loved to sing and quickly learned all the hymns, and she began attending Perpetual Help devotions. “At first I did not like the icon because I was not used to icons, only pictures,” she said. “I placed a special intention that had been weighing on my heart before the Blessed Mother, and received an answer. That gave me confidence in and love for Our Mother of Perpetual Help.”
Barbara never would have imagined that she would be writing the icon one day. When she entered the Redemptoristine Nuns as a postulant in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1947, a new chapter of her life began.
Mother Mary Celeste, the Superior, asked her about her talents and what she liked to do. Barbara replied that she liked to draw, sketch and paint. To measure her abilities, Mother Mary Celeste gave Barbara a picture of St. Joseph that one of their benefactors treasured, and asked her to paint a similar picture. Barbara did it so well that the Superior continued to give her more and more artwork. Being versed in art as well, the Superior would then look at a painting and suggest a stroke here, a darker color there, a highlight here, a final touch there.
When the Community moved from Toronto to Barrie, Ontario, she took on the challenge of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. This was her assigned job to help bring income to the young foundation which had just arrived from Chudleigh, England. Fr. John Lockwood, a Redemptorist from the Toronto Province, served as their unofficial salesman. Sister explained that her appreciation of the icon continued to grow.
Just as the Holy Father had commissioned the Redemptorists to make her known, Mother Mary Celeste told Sr. Barbara, “Your vocation is to paint pictures of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.” And she did – more than 20 times. Most of her icons were the size of the original icon. “I had seen some pictures with a crown with artificial jewels, but I never had a way to glue on a crown. Besides, I wanted it to look real,” she said.
Br. Dan Korn, iconologist of the Denver Province, compliments Sr. Barbara’s work and says that he is impressed by the detail and accuracy of her icons, especially because she had no formal training.
Although Sr. Barbara is a bit shy when talking about writing the icon, she says that it has been a very prayerful – yet at times demanding – experience. She has since put away her paints, but the results of her labor of love are still visible in a number of places in the USA and Canada.
Sr. Ann Marie, O.Ss.R.