The icon of Jeanne Chézard de Matel, foundress of the Order of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, was commissioned in October 1998, after Sisters Margaret Taylor and Mary Rose Kocab met Sr. Nancy Lee Smith at a meeting of LCWR (the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) where Nancy was exhibiting her work, including the icon of her own community’s foundress, Theresa Maxis. Nancy was sharing her special interest in and her willingness to write the icons of founders and foundresses of Religious Congregations. Jeanne Chézard de Matel’s icon was completed three years later in July 2001.
The writing of an icon requires extensive preparation. Even before a pencil is ever put to paper to sketch the “cartoon image,” the iconographer prepares for the writing with archival research, prayer and fasting, to be true to the sacramental purpose of the icon. Sr. Nancy Lee Smith describes her preparation as one of “building a relationship with the saint.” She says, “You need to crawl into their shoes, and you need for them to reveal to you what direction to go. You pray, and you pray, and you pray! And you beg, and you ask for help, and you wait for the person to reveal how they wish to be portrayed.” Most iconographers attest to having some profound experience of the saints they portray. “Spiritual preparation can take months before the image begins to take shape,” she says, “first in your mind and heart, and then on the velvety-smooth gesso-covered, mahogany board.”
Nancy describes how, during the writing of the icon of Jeanne, she depended on the prayer of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, Jeanne’s own Sisters, as well as on the prayerful support of others who support her in this ministry. Throughout the writing, especially at difficult moments, she would call to ask for more intense prayer. Nancy had reminders of Jeanne in her studio and in her personal prayer space throughout the three years of writing her icon. She reflected on words from the Writings of Jeanne Chézard de Matel, using them as mantras for her prayer. She also made several days of retreat throughout the time to listen more deeply. At one particular moment, during the time of the writing of the icon, Nancy describes sitting down to pray, “when suddenly I saw Jeanne in my mind’s eye in the exact posture as that of Mary at the Annunciation according to Andrej Rublev. I realized that it was precisely how Jeanne wanted me to render her in the icon.
Nancy Lee’s preparation also included a pilgrimage to Lyon, France in April, 1999. She went to Roanne, where she spent time at the Chateau de Matel, walked through the door Jeanne walked through growing up, wandered the yard where she played, prayed in the Church of St. Stephen where Jeanne was baptized, and saw the Chapel of St. Michael’s where Jeanne first understood her call to found the Order. In Lyon, she wandered the street, Gourgillon, “the hill flowing with the blood of martyrs,” of which Jeanne had had a vision that THAT is where the Order of the Incarnate Word would be born. She walked this steep hill, seeing from the outside the first Monastery of the Incarnate Word, and imaging Jeanne walking the same route to the nearby Churches of St. George and St. Irenaeus. At the present home of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word on Fourvière Hill, Nancy was able to spend time in the Tribuna in the presence of the relics of Jeanne Chézard de Matel. And she was able to meet Sisters Marie Bernadette, Silvia Estella, Noemi, and other members of the Order, becoming acquainted with some of Jeanne’s Sisters who live her spirit and charism today.
Shortly after the icon was commissioned, Sr. Nancy made a visit to the Sisters of the Incarnate Word in Cleveland, Ohio to present an introduction about iconography, and to talk with the community about Jeanne. During the following three years, at various stages of the work, Sisters Mary Catherine McNamara and Mary Rose Kocab made several trips to Sr. Nancy Lee’s St. Joseph Studio for ongoing consultation. And throughout the process, Sr. Nancy maintained regular e-mail and phone contact with the Sisters.