The story of Ade Bethune is an important chapter in the cultural history of our time. This woman made unique contributions to the field of sacred art & architecture and social justice as an artist, writer, and liturgical consultant, all flowing from her early association with Dorothy Day and the publication of her pictures in The Catholic Worker.
Marie Adélaïde de Bethune (known as Ade Bethune) was born in Brussels, Belgium, on January 12, 1914. Her parents were interested in both the progressive movements of the day and the deep traditions of Catholicism and Christianity. Even at a young age Bethune had a strong interest in Catholicism, liturgical art, and the Progressive movement. The family immigrated to New York City in 1928. There Bethune was educated at Cathedral High School and later, the National Academy of Design and Cooper Union. In 1933 Bethune, while at the National Academy, created a design for a stained glass medallion, which was the winning entry in a contest. The prize enabled her to spend the summer at the Boston studios of Charles J. Connick, where she executed her design.
Upon returning from Boston to New York in the fall of 1933, Ade Bethune learned from some classmates about the Catholic Worker and visited the CW house later that year. Seeing their newspaper, she decided to help the struggling organization by making 4 black and white ink drawings and submitting them to The Catholic Worker. These illustrations, the first of many over the years, appeared in the March 1934 issue. She later created a masthead for the paper, first used in May 1935.
Ade Bethune became a disciple of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the Catholic Worker Movement. Her early works reflect her observations and sympathies toward the poor and disadvantaged people she saw all around her in Depression-era New York. Ms. Bethune was especially talented at drawings that depict Biblical scenes, and at drawing saints. The people in her drawings tend to be working class, ordinary people, dressed in the common clothes of the present-day. They perform everyday chores, and often are shown in what she called "acts of mercy," such as nursing the sick, feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless.
Left to right: Ade Bethune, Dorothy Day, Dorothy Weston, Jacques Maritain, and Peter Maurin, at the Catholic Worker house in New York, 1934.
Photo by William Callahan, from Marquette University Special Collections.
This 1935 Catholic Worker masthead depicted two male workers with Christ in the center. For the May 1985 issue Bethune revised the masthead to include a female worker with child in place of one of the men. This masthead is still used today.
Two Catholic Worker readers who took an interest in Ade Bethune's work, architect Graham Carey and stonecutter John Howard Benson, became her artistic mentors. Benson owned the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, founded by stonecutter and mason John Stevens in the early eighteenth century. Bethune began spending part of the year at Benson's shop where she learned stone and woodcarving and calligraphy. She moved to Newport permanently in 1938 and lived there until her death.
Shortly after moving to Newport, Ade Bethune took in her first apprentices. The John Stevens Shop became "John Stevens University," a workshop where students could learn from master craftsmen Benson, Carey, and photographer W. King Covell, in addition to Bethune. She was to continue working with apprentices for the rest of her life.
In January 1936, Father Joseph Lonergan wrote Ade Bethune asking if she would make a set of Stations of the Cross for his church, St. Paulinus, which was being built in a town outside of Pittsburgh, PA. He had seen her Way of the Cross drawings in the Catholic Worker during Lent, and wanted the designs carved in wood. Over the next several years Bethune created several other works for the church, including 3 crucifixes, carved wooden statues of Joseph and Mary, 24 8-foot high painted panels depicting saints and angels, a rose window, and 2 stained glass lancet windows for the baptistry.
Bethune's next commissions were in 1950, when she created paintings and mosaics for a church in the Philippines, and in 1951, when she was asked to paint the white-washed walls of a church in the Yucatan. Her work expanded to include the artistic component of church design for institutions from Canada to Jamaica and New England to the Southwest. Local projects include Lumen Christi Church in the Highland area of St. Paul (formerly the Church of St. Leo) and a baptistry mosaic for the Cathedral of St. Paul. There was no limit to the materials she worked with or objects she designed: painted panels and murals; mosaics; stained glass; woodcarving; vestments, banners, and other textiles; metal and pottery chalices.
In 1954, Bethune began writing about church architecture and how it could support and enhance the liturgy. Her love of liturgy stemmed from a 2-week course Dorothy Day persuaded her to take, taught by Father Gerald Ellard, S.J., in the summer of 1934. Based on her enthusiasm for the course, she became involved in the Liturgical Movement. Peter Maurin encouraged Bethune in public speaking and writing, persuading her to communicate both the ideals of the Catholic Worker and her own ideas.
The many articles Bethune wrote on church design became very influential, some of them foreshadowing changes later brought about by the Second Vatican Council. She became seen as an authority on the subject, and more and more, when people contacted her, they didn't want just her art, they wanted her ideas as well. She became a liturgical consultant. One of the first churches for which she acted as consultant was the Church of St. Leo in St. Paul, MN. She was hired for this project in 1960. Bethune would go on to provide liturgical design and consulting services for almost 300 churches up until the early 1990s.
In addition to her work with individual churches, Bethune was involved in several organizations related to liturgy and art. She was active with the Catholic Art Association (CAA) from the late 1930s until its dissolution in 1970. During most of the 1940s she was director of the CAA’s Atlantic region. She chaired several committees over the years and was on the board of directors from 1967-1970. Many of her articles about liturgical art and architecture appeared in the association’s journal, Catholic Art Quarterly. She also wrote frequently about art education for the CAA. Along with contributing articles and art for CAQ, she served as its editor from 1947-1951 and as a contributing editor from 1961-1965.
Ade Bethune was a strong proponent of Vatican II and its architectural and procedural changes within the Catholic Church. As a “major twentieth-century liturgical pioneer,” she was called upon by many liturgical organizations and commissions, including the Diocese of Providence and the newly founded Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC), to help create their own guidelines in response to these changes, especially those relating to art and architecture. Working in various capacities, both formally and informally, Bethune’s contributions led to her receiving the Frederick R. McManus Award from the FDLC for her “significant contribution to pastoral liturgy on the national level.”
From the beginning, people contacted the Catholic Worker wanting copies of Ade Bethune's drawings. She began printing and selling them, eventually incorporating the St. Leo Shop as a mail-order outlet for her work. With St. Leo, she moved beyond prints to other high-quality religious items—painted icons, crib (nativity) sets, ceramic dishes for Christmas and Easter, baptism robes, patterns and kits for religious-themed needlework items, etc. Most of these were mass produced by hand in her home. Eventually, she added items created by others, and even imported from abroad, such as Madonna figurines from European churches, lace from Spain to create mantillas for church head coverings, and books on various subjects. The St. Leo Shop also became a North American outlet for the publications of Maria Montessori. It remained a viable business until the early 1980s, when she closed the shop to pursue other business interests.
The main outlet for Bethune's work became the Terra Sancta Guild, a company formed by Isidore Serot outside of Philadelphia, PA. Serot had partnered with a metal-working shop in Israel to produce religious items that he sold through Terra Sancta. Ade Bethune began advising Serot and designed some items for Terra Sancta. Eventually she traveled to Israel to learn more about the art of working with and enameling metal. She later became artistic director for Terra Sancta, a position she held until her death.
Ade Bethune moved to Newport, RI in 1938. She bought her first house there in 1940, and then a second, larger one on The Point waterfront in 1953. With homeownership came a greater awareness of responsibility to society and an interest in the quality of life in her community. In 1969 she was one of the first board members of a newly formed ecumenical organization, the Church Community Housing Corporation (CCHC), dedicated to providing safe and affordable housing for those of low and middle incomes. Over the next 10 years she held the positions of treasurer, vice president, and president of the CCHC. She also used her experience as an architectural consultant to design over 30 houses for them, including the first solar-heated house in Newport, dedicated in 1977.
Bethune was also active in her neighborhood organization, the Point Association, beginning in the late 1950s. Over the course of her involvement with the association, Bethune served as a member of the Board and also as the chair of the Traffic Committee and the Circulation Committee. For a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s she was chairman of the East-West Point Committee (EWPC), created in response to a proposed highway project that would divide the Point neighborhood. She was extremely active in this effort, appearing at hearings and writing the Rhode Island governor and head of the state Department of Transportation. She even produced sketches of alternate plans and routes. Largely due to her activism and that of the EWPC, the road was never built on the scale originally planned.
In the later decades of the 20th century she became involved with two civic organizations--the Citizens Advisory Committee of Newport and the Foundation For Newportj (FFN). From 1989 to 1991, Bethune worked on the Citizens Advisory Committee to help draft a Comprehensive Land Use Plan under the authority of the Newport City Council. Following final development of the plan, the FFN was formed to help implement recommendations the plan had outlined. Bethune was on the FFN’s steering committee as it started to organize in 1992 and remained on the committee until her death in 2002. Both groups were dedicated to planning community development and land use that preserved Newport's historical character and rich environmental resources.
In the late 1980s Ade Bethune identified a new housing need in Newport. Caring for her aging parents had awakened her to the need for elder housing that encouraged independence yet recognized the need for community. Along with key members of the CCHC, Bethune founded Star of the Sea in 1991 with the mission to develop that vision. After a decade of fundraising and development, construction was begun to convert an old Auchincloss-estate-turned-Cenacle-retreat-center into the Harbor House elderly living community Bethune envisioned. Her mission was fulfilled and she was one of the first tenants when Harbor House opened February 4, 2002. Ade Bethune died shortly thereafter in her Harbor House quarters on May 1, 2002.
View the Chronology of Ade Bethune's life.
More details about the life and work of Ade Bethune can be found in the 1988 biography, Proud Donkey of Schaerbeek: Ade Bethune, Catholic Worker Artist by Sister Judith Stoughton, CSJ, published by North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota. This book is out of print, but copies of it can be found in the St. Catherine University Library or through used-book outlets.
In her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day wrote of Ade Bethune:
Whenever I visited Ade I came away with a renewed zest for life. She has such a sense of the sacramentality of life, the goodness of things, a sense that is translated in all her works whether it was illustrating a missal, making stained-glass windows or sewing, cooking or gardening.