A unique exhibition showcasing women of faith has officially opened at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, with 24 pop-art portraits by Cologne-based artist Barbara Skorupa on display from 1 to 10 March. The exhibition features the faces of women from around the world—some saints, some not—who have lived lives of faith and made significant contributions in the areas of medicine, health and education.

The collection includes Australians St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Dr Sr Mary Glowrey, Eileen O’Connor and the perhaps lesser known Josephite Sister Mary La Merci Mahoney, who was the congregational leader of the Josephites at the time of Mary MacKillop’s death.

Archbishop Peter A Comensoli launched the exhibition on Friday 1 March at ACU’s Cathedral Hall, with many of those in attendance from the religious orders and organisations set up by the women featured in the exhibition.

They included members of the Catholic Women’s League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga Inc (previously the Catholic Women’s Social Guild) and the family of the world’s first ‘doctor-sister’, Australian Dr Sr Mary Glowrey. Glowrey lived in East Melbourne while studying and working as a doctor at the Royal Melbourne Eye and Ear Hospital and St Vincent’s Hospital. She also served as the first general president of the guild, and as explained by Mrs Annie Carrett, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, ‘led the guild’s governing committee of 12 women—Catholic female leaders in the areas of medicine, education, law and health’.

‘Mary Glowrey is just one story, amongst many, of inspiring women of great faith,’ said Mrs Carrett, who also shared the significance of the launch’s venue. ‘Opened almost 120 years ago in 1904 … this very stage, and this stunning room, are where some of the great voices, energies and actions began in the support of women and children—and in strengthening the living out of the Catholic faith in the domestic and social context of this city and beyond.’

In conversation with Prof Gabrielle McMullen AM, who emceed the launch, Barbara shared how her portrait series came about and why she had become enthralled by the lives of Australian women like Mary Glowrey and St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.

It turns out Barbara had been visiting Australia around the time of Mary MacKIllop’s canonisation and became ‘very impressed by the difficulties that she faced in 19th-century, outback Australia and against the bishops … and how she was able to make such a significant contribution to helping start the education system in Australia.’

They’re gazing at us ... It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘What are you going to do?’

Another woman featured in the collection is Adelė Dirsytė, a young Lithuanian woman who was a teacher and became involved with Catholic agencies like Caritas. Adele began working towards Lithuanian independence, becoming a political prisoner who was later sentenced and sent to Siberia. Barbara explained that she felt a strong parallel between Adele’s story and that of the recently deceased Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Through her research, Barbara discovered that Adele’s remains have never been found and were most likely buried somewhere in the snow of Siberia.

‘The artistic process can sometimes take months,’ explained Barbara, as it involves researching the subject’s life and then, once she’s developed an empathy for her, selecting the colours that will suit the portrait. This may include an allusion to the woman’s nationality or even a hint of blue, if they’ve some connection to the Virgin Mary.

‘It’s something like icon-writing—it takes a long time with a lot of thought.’

Husband and wife Jennifer and Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer attended the launch and said they were amazed by Barbara’s ability to convey the quiet confidence and conviction of each woman on canvas.

‘They’re gazing at us,’ reflected Jennifer, who volunteers with the CatholicCare prison chaplaincy team. ‘They’re not objects; they’re here with us. It’s almost like they’re saying, “What are you going to do?”

Christiaan, who is Mission Leader for St Vincent’s Health Australia, said he was particularly impressed by the portrait of Anna Dengel, a medical missionary from Austria who later cared for the sick in Pakistan.

‘It just seems like she has this amazing combination of confidence and humility, of deep empathy and groundedness. It’s so powerful.’

‘I just want to walk into a room and talk to her,’ shared Jennifer. ‘[This] is an art exhibit that is an invitation to our own holiness.’

The Great Women of Faith portrait exhibition by Barbara Skorupa is free and available to view at St Patrick’s Cathedral from 1 to 10 March. View exhibition times.