Sister Justina Niemierski was born Anna Niemierski on December 9, 1879 in Wietrienen, East Prussia.1 Her artistic abilities were fostered from an early age and ranged from drawing to sculpture. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, Berlin in the early 1900s. She entered the novitiate of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose in Altenberg, Moresnet on December 7, 1909 and pronounced her first vows on July 18, 1911.
The Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose is a congregation of Roman Catholic Women Religious based in Fremont, California. The order was founded on November 11, 1876 to address the growing educational needs of German immigrant families in the San Francisco Bay Area.2 Mother Maria Pia Backes was the foundress and first prioress and oversaw the move from San Francisco to Fremont following the 1906 Earthquake and fire. Sister Justina immigrated and came to reside at the Motherhouse in 1912 where she spent her life until her death on September 8, 1960.
S. Justina’s design and sculpture work on the Mater Dei Chapel demonstrates distinctly female agency in a gender-traditional religious context.3 Her artistry is part of her identity as a “contemplative” and mystic.4 It is an active demonstration of her artistic abilities and contemplative spirituality. Her artwork serves as an extension of herself, utilising recurring religious and natural symbols to create a personal spiritual language. Her agency is both empowering and instrumental in presentation, situating women such as herself and Mother Pia in a space of prayer alongside icons of Mary and the holy child Jesus and illuminated letters carved into panels.5 Her combination of natural, medieval, and Celtic symbolism in harmony with the chapel’s architecture and geographical location firmly situates the work as an example of the California Arts and Crafts Movement.
The Mater Dei Chapel, through the hallmark symbols of S. Justina’s artistic and spiritual language, creates a distinctly Californian spiritual narrative. The grapes and olives in chapel reliefs were production crops cultivated by the Sisters to produce wine and oil; the palm and oak trees were part of the Motherhouse campus gardens during S. Justina’s lifetime.6 The Chapel’s construction, deliberately traces the local movement of the sun to manage both light and darkness affect the Chapel’s natural lighting. It reflects her expertise in geometry and architecture in planning the design and placement of her sculptures.7 The chapel is a familial prayer space mirroring the relationship of a “client” believer beseeching Mary as Jesus’ mother and maternal intercessor.8
Female and evocative of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Mater Dei Chapel is S. Justina’s first complete architectural and sculptural work in California. It retains not only her personal spiritual presence but gives physical form to her mystical vision and life of religious devotion. Considered a “mystic” by her contemporaries, Sister Justina’s art expressed how she contemplated the Christian mysteries and truths in a spiritual context.9
Besides the Mater Dei Chapel, her works include the frieze of the St. Anne of the Sunset church in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, the Stations of the Cross on the Motherhouse campus, and the unfinished sculpture of the Queen of the Universe also on the Motherhouse grounds. Further study would reveal not only how her spiritual language evolved throughout her life but also address the lasting impact of her sculptural work that can be experienced daily throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
1. “1985 – A Year of Celebration, Sister Justina; December 9, 1979–September 8, 1960.” DSMSJ Archives, basement level, drawer set designated for Sister Justina Niemierski, large black file.↩
2. “Time Line: Congregational History.” DSMSJ Archives digital file, p. 5.↩
3. Kelsey C. Burke, “Women’s Agency in Gender-Traditional Religions: A Review of Four Approaches.” Sociology Compass 6.2 (2012): p. 122.↩
4. Mary Thomas Lillis, Seed and Growth: The Story of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose (Fremont, California: Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose, 2012), p. 225.↩
5. Burke, p. 124.↩
6. Multiple photographs, Sister Justina’s photobook (brown leather). DSMSJ Archives, basement level storage.↩
7. Geometric practice notes and designs for normal school course. DSMSJ Archives, basement level, drawer set designated for Sister Justina Niemierski, large black file.↩
8. Thanks to Margaret McCarthy for observing the the familial nature of the space.↩
9. “1985 – A Year of Celebration, Sister Justina.” DSMSJ Archives, large black file.↩