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A Divine Revelation: Tomas Penning’s Religious Sculpture in Bluestone

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

By Bruce Weber

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Native Stone: The Art of Thomas Penning remains on view at the Woodstock School of

Art until December 11th. An illustrated catalog with an essay by the author is available for purchase.

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Tomas Penning (1905-1982)

Our Lady of Fatima, 1948

Bluestone

Penning Family Archives

Originally commissioned for

St. Patrick’s Church, Quarryville

Now Church of St. John’s the Evangelist, Saugerties, New York


In 1947, the bluestone sculptor Tomas Penning was commissioned to create a statue of Our Lady of Fatima for St. Patrick’s Church in the rural hamlet of Quarryville in Saugerties. He later explained that all his life he had been fascinated by religious sculpture, and desired to create a figure for the outside of a church. He enjoyed the experience in Quarryville, and set out to get further commissions.

Penning at Work in His Studio: Carving

Our Lady of the Harbor,

c. 1947-1948

Penning Family Archives


In 1971, St. Patrick’s Church closed and became part of the parish of the new church of St. John the Evangelist. Penning’s statue was relocated several miles away to its present location outside the church on Route 212 in the Saugerties hamlet of Centerville. The sculpture stands on a spot to the immediate east of the entrance of the church of St. John the Evangelist, where a new cement grotto was created. The original bluestone grotto, beautifully designed by the architect Philip Gilbane, survives.

Our Lady of Fatima in Bluestone Grotto, Quarryville, New York c. 1948

Photograph, Penning Family Archives

Bluestone Grotto Today and Building Which Served as Original Church,

Quarryville,, New York


Over the course of 1950-1959, Penning was supported in his quest for further commissions of religious work by the Liturgical Arts Society, and created religious sculptures of Saint Columba (1950) for St. Columba’s Roman Catholic Church in Chester, New York; Our Lady of the Hudson (1952), for Presentation Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Port Ewen, New York; St. Mary-of the-Snow (1956) for St. Mary’s School on Cedar Street in the village of Saugerties; and Young Patrick (1959) for the grounds of St. Patrick’s Parochial School in Verplanck, New York (since moved to St. Patrick’s Cemetery). Among the archival material in Tomas Penning’s daughter Mary’s possession, are photographs of religious statues Penning created that are untitled and unaccounted for as commissions. These works may have been destroyed in the fire in Penning’s little studio in High Woods in 1964.


Unidentified Religious Sculpture

by Tomas Penning, n.d.

Penning Family Archives


In addition to the statues noted above, Penning may have undertaken some minor religious commissions, such as the one he received in 1954 to carve a wooden altar for the Chapel of the Sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, located off Woodstock Avenue in Palenville, New York.

Tomas Penning (1905-1992)

Section of Altar, Former Chapel

of the Sisters of the Franciscan

Missionaries of Mary, 1954

Bluestone

Private Collection, Palenville, New York


A practicing Roman Catholic, Penning was close friends with the Reverend Louis A. Stryker, and Reverend Jeremiah Nemececk. From the mid-1940s through the early 1950s, Reverend Stryker was the pastor of the Church of St. John the Evangelist in the hamlet of Veteran in Saugerties (church since moved to Centerville). He was also involved with the hall adjoining the church, which ran religious education classes and square dances on Saturday nights, and delivered mass at St. Patrick’s in Quarryville. Penning assisted in the construction of the hall with a guild-like team of fellow workers and craftsmen.


Following Reverend Stryker's departure to a parish outside the county, the Pennings moved on from St. John the Evangelist to St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church on Rock City Road in Woodstock (now the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center), and, when that closed, they moved to the Church of St. John's in West Hurley. Reverend Nemececk was the pastor at St. Joan of Arc and St. John’s from 1955 through the autumn of 1960, when he was transferred to a parish in Goshen, New York. Reverends Stryker and Nemececk were regular guests at the Penning’s picnics and parties, and most likely assisted the artist in his quest for church commissions.

Unknown Photographer

Jacques Maritain, c. 1930

Gelatin silver print


Under the influence of the writings of the Frenchman Jacques Maritain, Penning began to practice Thomism, the theology and philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, in the course of the late 1930s or early 1940s. Maritain was a well-known scholar of St. Thomas Aquinas and Thomistic philosophy. By 1928 he was at the forefront of the neo-Thomist revival. An original synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology, Thomism teaches, among other things, that there is a real distinction of principles between the soul and its powers of knowing and willing; that human knowledge is based upon sense experience leading to the mind’s reflective activity; that human beings and lower creatures have a natural tendency or love toward God; that grace perfects and elevates the natural ability of humans; and that blessedness consists formally in knowing God himself, a knowledge accompanied by the full love of God. Penning commonly quoted St. Aquinas. The journalist Susan Barrow, for example, noted that the sculptor quoted the saint in a conversation with her about the nature of art: “‘Art is man continuing the act of Creation . . . . [It] is the well making of a thing that needs making.”(1)

Maurice Lavanoux


Religiously and philosophically, Penning was closely linked to the liturgical movement of the early 20th century, and to the Liturgical Arts Society and its publication Liturgical Arts Quarterly. The quarterly was initiated by the artist, editor and writer Maurice Lavanoux in 1938, and during its forty years existence it was internationally respected among artists and scholars associated with the liturgical movement, and grew to become a dominant force in religious art and architecture. The magazine brought together artists, architects, theologians and liturgists to form new and creative options for contemporary religious expression. The writer John Douaire remarked that the society brought “to an end, by means of a direct achievement, the absurd divorce which for the past century had separated the Church from living art.’”(2) Susan J. White, an authority on the Liturgical Arts Society, referred to the publication as “a forum [for a] philosophy of art based on the works of Jacques Maritain refined and adapted by [the sculptor] Eric Gill.”(3) After settling in New York City in 1940, Maritain and his wife Raissa were important supporters of the Liturgical Arts Society and became close friends of Lavanoux.

Our Lady of Fatima

Liturgical Arts Quarterly, August 1948

Letter from Tomas Penning,

Liturgical Arts Quarterly,

November 1947


In September 1947, Penning invited Lavanoux to speak on the subject of “Art and the Church Today” at the Woodstock Artists Association, for which he then served as chairman. In a letter about the event published in the November issue of Liturgical Arts Quarterly, Penning reported that the talk resulted in a lively interest in liturgical arts among local artists, and that “for the most part it was a revelation to them that the Church was in any way interested in contemporary art. . . . All artists are familiar with the relationship of the Church to the arts of the past, but it has never occurred to them that this relationship could and should exist to-day. With few exceptions they are completely oblivious to the needs of the Church and . . . to the work of the Liturgical Arts Society. . . . we have the artists who feel that religious art is a lot of sentimentality. The task is to help overcome these prejudices and misconceptions.”(4)


Susan J. White has explained that the “restoration of European monasticism, the reliance on Thomistic theology, and a desire to wipe away what were seen to be the unfortunate results of the Reformation and of Renaissance humanism were all central elements within the earliest period of the 20th-century liturgical renewal. To some degree or another, each of these elements contributed to a certain measure of ‘medieval nostalgia’ among the liturgical pioneers, both in Europe and in the United States. In believing that the faith of medieval Christianity was of a purer form than that of later periods, and in believing that the liturgy of the Middle Ages somehow both reflected and reinforced that faith, the Liturgical Arts Society was [in] step with the liturgical movement as a whole during the same period.”(5) Penning had a special interest and enthusiasm for the ecclesiastical art, history and philosophy of the Middle Ages. Penning longed to visit the great Gothic cathedrals of France, including Chartres and Notre Dame, and Salisbury Cathedral in England, but never lived to make the trips.


Tomas Penning (1905-1982)

Our Lady of the Hudson (Boatman’s Shrine, Madonna of the Hudson), 1952

Bluestone

Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, Port Ewen, New York


Our Lady of the Hudson ranks as Penning’s most outstanding work of religious sculpture, and the story behind its creation deserves special attention and focus. The piece, which is also sometimes referred to as the Boatman’s Shrine or Madonna of the Hudson, was commissioned in August of 1951, and stands to the south of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in the hamlet of Port Ewen, located south of Kingston on the west bank of the Hudson River at the mouth of the Rondout Creek.


In the mid-1870s, Irish Catholic tugboat workers were a major force behind the building of the church. By the early 1950s the parish had almost 400 members, at least a third of whom had a connection with the tugboat industry dating back to the late nineteenth century, when the D & H Canal in nearby Rondout was a thriving river port, and tugboat operators plied the inland waterway from New York City to the Barge Canal and on through to the Great Lakes. The tugboat industry ushered in an era of river commerce that fueled the Hudson River economy and beyond. By the early twentieth century, Port Ewen was home to more river men than any other community along the Hudson, but this would change only a few years after the shrine’s dedication.

View from Sculpture to Hudson River Below

Cross Illuminated at Night


Our Lady of the Harbor stands majestically looking out in the direction of the Hudson River on a five-foot-high shrine designed by the local architect John J. O’Conner. The boat cradled in the Virgin Mary’s folded left arm is a replica in miniature of a tugboat that was in actual operation in New York Harbor. From the start the church planned to make the statue visible at night from the waterway below. To accomplish this a cross placed near the sculpture was illuminated with electricity during dark hours. The work took eight months to complete, and was hewn from a perfect piece of bluestone that Penning found in a Sawkill quarry after a week spent scouring the neighboring streams and quarries for a proper stone. The column, which originally weighed one ton, was drilled out by the Hulsaic Brothers quarrymen.


The sculpture was created at the urging of the scores of Port Ewen boatmen whose families had long plied the river and the old Rondout barge canal, and with the support of tugboat workers in New York City and members of the International Longshoremen’s Association. The sculpture was conceived by tugboat captains and workers, who sent a delegation to the Reverend Comyns, the pastor of the Port Ewen church, to discuss the idea of commissioning a statue of the Virgin Mary holding a small model of a boat symbolic of their trade. One of the boatmen informed Reverend Comyns about the bluestone figure Penning had recently carved for St. Patrick’s Church in Quarryville. Penning was approached at his home in the High Woods section of Saugerties, and went to work on the design, creating a half-scale clay model, which was approved by the church during the first week in August of 1951.

Penning Working on Clay Model of

Our Lady of the Harbor

Kingston News Leader, August 17, 1951


Our Lady of the Hudson stands as a reminder to the tugboat men passing on the river that they have the special protection of the Blessed Mother of Jesus. It was paid for with the help of contributions donated by individual boatmen, many of them members of families who still worked on the river, including the more than a dozen towing companies located in or near Kingston.

The largest donations came from the International Longshoreman’s Association and its United Marine Division. In addition to paying for the statue and platform the boatmen donated the funds for the large plot of land adjoining St. Leo’s Parish Hall, so that outdoor services could be held beside the shrine in the warmer months of the year. According to art historian Joan D’Arcy, Penning was close friends with the priest who served as Chaplain to the Longshoreman’s Association, who played a role in guiding the commission Penning’s way.(6)

Dedication of Our Lady of the Harbor, 1952

Penning Family Archives

Attendees, Dedication of

Our Lady of the Harbor, 1952

Penning Family Archives


The sculpture was unveiled in June 1952 by Mrs. Patrick Hines, the mother of five sons, all of whom were tugboat men. Numerous boatloads of men came to witness the event. In the press release for the unveiling Penning is quoted as stating that only “two other statues comparable to Our Lady of the Hudson exist. They are a carving of the Virgin Mary holding a whaling vessel, erected generations ago at Gloucester, Mass., and a century old holy figure holding a tugboat at Marseilles, France.”(7) Closer to home, Gloucester’s Our Lady of Good Voyage Church served a large Portuguese immigrant population which came to work in the coastal city’s fishery industry. The statue, which in recent time has been replaced by a copy, stands on a pediment above the second level of the church. She holds the whaling vessel in her left hand—providing the blessing of a safe voyage for all those who worked close by on the Atlantic Ocean.

Our Lady of Good Voyage Church, Gloucester, Mass.

Our Lady of Good Voyage Church, Gloucester, Mass.


The radical journalist, social activist and Catholic convert Dorothy Day traveled to Port Ewen to see Our Lady of the Hudson shortly after its unveiling, and also paid a visit to her friends and ardent admirers, the Pennings, at their home in Saugerties. Day founded the Catholic Worker with Peter Maurin in 1933 in New York City, and served as its editor from 1933-1980. The publication advocated for the Catholic economic theory of distribution, and initially aimed its primary focus on those suffering the most during the depths of the Great Depression, who lacked faith in the future. It covered strikes, explored working conditions, the exploitation of women and African American workers, and explicated papal teaching on social issues. The Catholic Worker attracted such radical thinkers as Thomas Merton and Daniel Berrigan. Day spoke around the country, praying, fasting, protesting, and enduring stays in jail on behalf of peace and justice.

Dorothy Day


Day reported on the trip to Port Ewen and High Woods in her article “On Pilgrimage,” published in the Catholic Worker in October 1952, noting that in the month of August she had “a visit I had been looking forward to all summer, and that was to the Pennings . . . near Woodstock . . . . A first invitation had come from the Pennings in June, to be present at the unveiling of the statue of the Madonna of the Hudson, at Port Ewen, just below Kingston, where the canal which used to bring coal from Pennsylvania, empties into the Hudson. This section used to be the home of the ‘canaliers,’ as they were called, but now is the home of a number of tugboat men. . . . I am just as glad I did not get to the unveiling, since I would have run into that unsavory character, Joseph P. Ryan, president of the International Longshoreman’s Union, attending the function, no doubt, with huns and bodyguards. There have been too many public relations stunts in the history of labor and capital, and this followed too neatly on the heels of the strike last year, for me to be anything but suspicious of the motives of the associations who are putting up the money for this statue [by Penning]. Evelyn Underhill writes that ‘our modern humanitarianisms and sentimentalisms, our ceaseless attempt to harness the supernatural in the interest of our dark Satanic mills, look very cheap and thin over against the solemn realities of religion, the awful priority of God’ . . . . And here [are] tugboat men and longshore officialdom of the unions in power, getting very favorable notice in the press. God forgive my suspicious nature.


Of course, God writes straight with crooked lines. And of course, Our Lady stands there beautiful and serene on a bluff overlooking the Hudson and tugboat's whistle salutes as they go by, and our Lady is honored, or rather the statue of Our Lady is honored. But who knows the bitterness in the hearts of the great mass of workers who suffer from a corrupt officialdom, who know the scandal of the waterfront in New York, who suffer from the slavery of the hiring system, the shapeup, who know all about the kickback system, who look questionably at the salary of [Joseph P.] Ryan and his lifelong position as President of the longshoremen. They cannot say with David the psalmist, ‘Thy friends, O Lord, are exceedingly honorable.‘ How many friends of Our Lady are alienated, not won, by this lip service. Now all those who say Lord, Lord, are going to be saved.”(8)

Wendell Jones (1899-1956)

Tomas Penning in Studio, c. 1946-1948

Gelatin silver print

Penning Family Archives


Day wrote the following about her trip to see the Pennings: “We enjoyed our visit with the Pennings and the beautiful religious art he showed us in his huge studio where he works with the natural blue sandstone of the quarries of the region. There is flow and simplicity about his work, a warmth and compassion. The Pennings have lived for the last twenty years in their big [bluestone] house which seems to have grown up out of the woods around them. They are a mile from the road and in back of the house is a natural swimming pool which used to be an old quarry, not more than ten feet deep. It is only in the last five years that Tomas Penning has become a religious artist”(9)

Tomas Penning (1905-1982)

St. Columba, by 1954

St. Columba’s Roman Catholic Church, Chester, New York

Photograph by John Kleinhans

Tomas Penning (1905-1982)

St. Mary-of-the-Snow, 1956

Bluestone

St. Mary’s School, Saugerties, New York

Entryway and Building, St. Mary’s School, Saugerties, New York

Young Patrick in High Woods Studio, c. 1959

Penning Family Archives

Created for the grounds of St. Patrick’s Parochial School in Verplanck, New York

Since moved to St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Verplanck


Penning died on November 2, 1982 at Fort Myers Community Hospital in Fort Myers, Florida. Following the funeral at St. John’s Parish Center in West Hurley, he was interred beside his wife Elizabeth at Mt. Evergreen Cemetery in Woodstock. In 1994, the James Cox Gallery in Woodstock (now in Willow) acquired 54 pieces of the sculptor’s work from the couple’s son John. Many works by Penning (including numerous religious pieces) dot the grounds of the Cox gallery in Willow. As noted, religious sculptures are also located in Chester and Verplanck, New York as well as the aforementioned churches in Saugerties and Port Ewen. “Everybody to my belief is born with creative ability,” Penning remarked in a radio interview of about 1940. “It is stronger in some than in others, and must be cultivated to progress. I heartily agree with Mr. [Ananda] Coomarswamee, curator of the Oriental division of the Boston Museum, when he says that ‘an artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.’ We must cultivate this creative ability—it is the vitalizing force which can lift us beyond the humdrum.”(10)


__________________________________________________________________________________


Many people have provided valuable help in making my research, writing and curatorial work on the art and life of Tomas Penning possible, including Mary Giuliano, daughter of Tomas and Elizabeth Penning; her husband Marty Giuliano; Nina Doyle, Executive Director, Woodstock School of Art; Kim Apolant, Librarian, Woodstock Public Library; Emily Jones, Archivist, Woodstock Artists Association and Museum; James Cox; Peter Jones; Diana J. Boggs; Nancy Kline; Matthew Leaycraft; JoAnn Margolis, Archivist, Historical Society of Woodstock; Kate McGloughlin; New York Public Library; the late John Penning; Marc Plate; Tad Richards; Joel Rosenkranz; Saugerties Public Library; Michael Sullivan Smith; and Joanne Pagano Weber. I especially want to thank Allen Bryan, Ann Krupp, John Kleinhans, Paula Nelson, Mikhail Horowitz, Kevin Kennedy, Terrence DePietro, Dylan Nowik and the late Father Carl E. Johnson for their assistance in researching and preparing this essay.


(1) Penning is quoted in Susan Barrow, “Tom Penning,” Catskill Mountain Star, February 3, 1950, p. 7.

(2) John Douaire, “Pilgrimage to Assy – An Appraisal (‘Note by Father Couturier’),” Liturgical Arts Quarterly 19 (February 1951): 30.

(3) Susan J. White, Art, Architecture, and Liturgical Reform: The Liturgical Arts Society (1928-1972) (New York: Pueblo Publishers Inc., 1972), p. 114.

(4)Tomas Penning [Chairman, Woodstock Artists Association], “To the Editor of Liturgical Arts,” Liturgical Arts 16 (November 1947):36.

(5) White. p. 82.

(6) Joan D’Arcy, “Thomas Penning (1905-1982,” essay in Majesty and Magic: An Exhibition of Bluestone Sculpture by Tomas Penning (Woodstock: James Cox Gallery, 1994): n.p.

(7) Penning is quoted in Press Release, Dedication of Our Lady of the Harbor, Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, Port Ewen, New York 1952, Penning Family Archives.

(8) Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker 18 (October 1952): 1, 7.

(9) Ibid., pp. 1, 7.

(10) Transcript of a radio Interview with Tomas Penning by Frances Hasbrouck for her program Gadabout, c. 1939-1942, unpaginated, Penning Family Archives. The name of the radio station that broadcast the program is not known.








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