A New York art critic once said Sister Matilda “painted like a man.”
She took it as a compliment.
“I don’t paint with a woman’s touch,” she admitted.
The Catholic nun, who was blessed to have an avocation as uplifting as her vocation, led an extraordinary life with many daring adventures.
Sister Matilda, the former Caroline Bechter, was born in Akron in 1887 to European immigrants George and Josephine Bechter. She grew up in a crowded house on Allyn Street with at least 10 siblings.
Carrie was 9 years old and a pupil at St. Bernard’s School when her mother sent her to Polsky’s to buy a spool of thread. That was the day she discovered the glory of art.
“When I got to the store, there was a man standing in the window, painting,” Sister Matilda told the Beacon Journal decades later.
“I was fascinated. In fact — and I wouldn’t want you to spread this around — I skipped school for three days so I could go back and watch him paint.
“Finally, he let me come in with him and I held up his paintings for sale.”
The painter was George Gardner Symons, an American impressionist who specialized in winter scenes. He certainly made an impression that week.
Carrie asked her parents to combine her birthday and Christmas gifts so she could buy a paint set. With money scarce, she cut her pigtails and tied the locks to wooden matchsticks to make brushes.
The more she painted, the more she liked it. And the more she liked it, the better she got. The girl’s talent amazed relatives, friends and classmates.
Carrie didn’t intend to become a nun. At age 15, she received a letter from a girlfriend who invited her to stay at the convent of St. Dominic Academy in Jersey City, N.J.
“It meant I could study at some of the great art schools in New York,” Sister Matilda recalled. “So I went.”
The Akron girl took classes at Columbia, won a painting contest and received a scholarship to Cooper Union.
Carrie didn’t want to go home. She already was home.
“I’ve found my life’s work,” she told her mother.
She joined the convent in 1907, adopted the name Sister Matilda in honor of a younger sibling, taught art in Catholic schools and continued to paint.
Cheerful, friendly Sister Matilda returned to Akron and joined the Sisters of St. Dominic. In 1923, the sisters purchased Elm Court, the West Market Street mansion of former B.F. Goodrich executive Arthur H. Marks, for use as a new headquarters. They renamed it Our Lady of the Elms.
Marks wanted $1 million for the 33-acre estate, but he gave the nuns a bargain at $400,000 — complete with furnishings.
Sister Matilda visited the mansion with her mother superior, who wasn’t too pleased to see gaudy, nude paintings decorating the walls. She ordered the art to be removed. Matilda loaded paintings into a car and took them to an art dealer.
“I told him the story,” she told a 1979 interviewer. “I said, ‘I’ve got them out in the car, all these nudes and things.’ He took them, and I went back and went up in the attic and came down with another load. That’s how we got started financially.”
Sister Matilda taught art at Immaculate Conception School in Ravenna, St. Augustine in Barberton, Sacred Heart Academy in Akron and, of course, Our Lady of the Elms.
She painted oil portraits on commission, but never kept the money. She gave all proceeds to the Sisters of St. Dominic for educational purposes.
Cleveland Bishop Joseph Schrembs admired her talent and arranged for Sister Matilda to study in Europe. In 1937, she enrolled at the Royal Institute of Art in Florence, Italy, to learn from European masters.
One day she was painting an outdoor scene when it began to rain. She took the painting inside to finish it.
“Sister, what are you doing?” an instructor demanded. He angrily threw the picture out a window and told his student never to try to capture light and shade from memory.
“It was a lesson I never forgot,” she said.
The nun soon got swept up in European tensions. German dictator Adolf Hitler came to Florence in 1938 to visit Italian fascist Benito Mussolini.
Sister Matilda heard people say “Heil, Hitler!” at school.
“I’m an American,” she told them. “Should I say, ‘Heil, America?’
“It was the child in me,” she recalled. “They called me up that day and said, ‘Sister, you’d better go.’ Anyhow, I got out the next day. I got on the train and went to Paris.”
She continued her studies at Fontainebleau and the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where World War II eventually caught up to her.
She was painting landscapes in a fishing village in the south of France in August 1939 when she noticed that soldiers were confiscating livestock from farmers. They kept getting in the way of her painting.
The next day, she heard rumors of war and hurried back to her convent in Paris.
“There I found the heroic nuns herding the children into buses and taking them out into Normandy,” she said. “I remained there several days helping them. That was when the sirens would scream and the populace would duck to their dugouts.”
After the children were evacuated to safety, Sister Matilda grabbed a bundle of paintings and left all other belongings behind. As warplanes flew overhead, she hopped a train to Le Havre, France, and arrived only a few minutes before the government shut down the transit system.
Sister Matilda had the foresight to buy a ticket months ahead and was able to board the U.S. luxury liner Manhattan. Hundreds of refugees crowded the decks. Seven people crammed into the nun’s two-person cabin.
Among those aboard the ship were Hollywood actress Norma Shearer, actor George Raft, U.S. Postmaster General James Farley and American gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell.
The Manhattan went north of its usual course, dodging German submarines and mines, and took a week to cross the Atlantic, but Sister Matilda was relieved to get home safely.
“I do not believe I will ever return to Europe again,” she told the Beacon Journal in 1939. “I could never go through another war scare like this one.”
U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited Sister Matilda as a guest of honor at a White House tea in May 1940. She took two of her paintings, The Hills of Sennville and Oyster Flats, to the gala.
The nun’s fame grew. She won positive reviews for exhibits in New York, Chicago, Washington and New Orleans. Her paintings adorned churches, hospitals and schools.
She reproduced Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Joseph and the Christ Child for St. Peter Catholic Church in Akron. She painted colorful portraits of former leaders of the Dominican order.
Her masterwork was a heavenly mural behind the altar in the chapel at Our Lady of the Elms. Sister Matilda spent 15 months on the angelic painting of St. Dominic receiving the rosary from Mary.
She completed it about 1959, but not without personal loss. One day on the scaffold, she became dizzy and fell, causing nerve damage to her leg.
Sister Matilda went from using a cane to using a wheelchair. She zoomed about the Elms in a three-wheeled, battery-powered cart.
The nun retired from teaching in the 1960s, but continued to paint for the rest of her life. She was 93 when she passed away Nov. 11, 1980. She was a nun for 73 years.
“I love the habit,” she said a year before her death. “I’d never give it up.”
Today, her paintings are treasured works at Our Lady of the Elms. Compelling, bold, vivid — just like the story of her life.
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.