The Fatima Visionary Who Helped an Artist Priest Sculpt His Iconic Statue of Our Lady

Fatima’s Shepherd Girl and the Artist Monk – Part V

In this last episode of a series of articles, the sculpture of the American statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary placed on the bell tower of the Basilica of the Rosary in Fatima comes to a happy end. Its modeling was a joint effort of the Dominican artist Father Thomas McGlynn and Irmã Dores, the former shepherd girl Lucy, begun on February 8, 1947 and completed seven days later. Irmã Dores herself advocated the publication of the history of its creation. Her sole aim was “to raise minds that today have become so materialistic to regions of the supernatural.”

Irmã Dores’ Design

Father McGlynn finally procured all the necessary tools and materials—fifty pounds of clay, but it was too wet. The artist tried to work the lump of clay into condition and get sufficient modeling done so that Irmã Dores would have something to criticize. Finally, a figure was roughly shaped with arms in the position of the Blessed Virgin in the June apparition. When she came to see his preliminary work, he told her that his only interest now was to make a statue that would resemble the apparition as closely as possible in every respect.

She would be there for only a few minutes, make what comments were necessary, and leave, he expected. But after half an hour there was still no sign that she intended to go. She stayed all the time, mornings and afternoons, every day that he worked.

She limited her first criticism to the position of the arms. With meticulous precision, both the height and angle of each forearm and the gesture of each hand were corrected. She studied especially the angle of the right hand, as if recalling the hand of our Lady and the projection of light that came from it upon her when she was a child. Knotting her brows slightly, she drew an imaginary line from her hand downward, as if from Our Lady’s hand to the children. When the session terminated, the general proportions of the figure and the positions of the hands had been established.

Irmã Dores became relaxed. Now, she was no longer under interrogation by two Dominicans in habit, who had been feeling almost like medieval inquisitors and heartily uncomfortable. For work, McGlynn had replaced his collar with a scarf, because of the severe cold. He usually wore a sweater with his habit. Pinned to the lapels of his coat, a light-blue apron was lent to him by one of the lay sisters. Sometimes, when it was not too cold, he wore the habit with this apron pinned on the capuche.

Irmã Dores (Sr. Lucia) and the model of Fr McGlynn’s statue.

For Irmã Dores, the project became a matter very close to her heart. She seemed confident of its final success. She herself expressed, on several occasions, the most important reason for her enjoyment of the work: she had always wanted to see a statue of the apparition of the Immaculate Heart. She had wished many times that she could be a sculptor so as to be able to make it herself, but, since she was not, she said, she believed that God had sent the monk to make this statue.

Joint Sculpting

Mother King, an Irish Dorothean sister who has known Irmã Dores since her novitiate, translates. Sometimes the nun and monk speak to each other in English. Irmã Dores listens attentively as she weaves a rosary. Suddenly she looks up from her work saying, “You know, when you two speak English, it sounds as though you were not articulating at all.” 

“It’s time to learn some English,” Mother King said and began a lesson. Irmã Dores struggled to imitate the sound, “Our Lady.” Something like “hour laddy” was the result. She thought it was a very odd way to say Nossa Senhora. The American Dominican tries: “Say, ‘okay’.” She made a brave attempt that ended in “ho-kayee.” Then she asked what it meant. Mother King explained, then laughingly scolded him: “Aren’t you ashamed, teaching Irmã Dores slang!”

For most of the work, interpretation was not needed; a basic vocabulary of about a dozen words sufficed along with Irmã Dores’ gestures for the artist to understand “higher,” “lower,” “left,” “right,” “larger,” “smaller,” and so on. Irmã Dores spent much of the time on her feet at the statue, watching the modeling closely and interrupting it often for corrections by actually touching the clay either with her fingers or a modeling tool. McGlynn was now by choice her instrument in making a statue, the object of which was to be an entirely documentary portrayal of the apparition of June 13, 1917. When the artist formed the veil according to her description, nothing seemed to work. Finally, she modeled part of the veil herself, as it can be seen today on the bell tower. There was not a detail of the execution that Irmã Dores missed or on which she did not comment with either approval or correction.

The treatment given to the drapery is essential for the overall effect. How are “waves of light” to be shaped? They could not be realistic fabric folds. And they had to show something of the lively character of the “wavy light” she was talking about. In the end, one of his attempts is judged to be successful. But still she suggests and insists that they be broken at the waist, alternating, so that the ridges of the folds falling from the waist correspond with the hollows of the folds above the waist. She explained that this resembled the apparition in that, while there was no visible cord drawing the waist in, there definitely was a break of the form at the waist. She insisted the drapery should fall down very straight and that the underlying shape of the body should not be at all obvious. Nor could the folds reveal the form of the breast more than by a slight curving of the bosom.

Precision in Details

McGlynn had placed the “little ball of light” directly at the waist. Irmã Dores, however, made him raise it about a quarter of an inch to its present position. She also pointed to the precise place where the “rays of sunlight” supporting the little ball of light entered the corner of the veil. She determined the length and shape of the mantle or veil, indicating that on the right side it curved back and fell in a fold; on the left it fell straight and was a bit lower.

In order to clarify the appearance of the heart and thorns, Irmã Dores went out into the garden and came back soon with branches of thorns. She joined the ends of one of them together to show how the thorns encircled the heart vertically and the approximate number that fastened into the heart. Incidentally, she said that, of the entire apparition, only the thorns were not made of light; they were simply burnt-out, brown, and natural in quality. She herself placed the heart surrounded by thorns in the right position after McGlynn had centred it a little more than she wished.

Irmã Dores knew exactly where to place the star at the hem. How many points? She did not know. McGlynn suggests the five-pointed Soviet star. After all, Russia would once be a jewel at the feet of Our Lady. The answer: “I don’t know.” He refers to the two “rays of sunlight” that carry that “ball of light”. Did they not form a V for victory, symbolizing “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph”? But even here he reaps only an “I do not know.”

The face and hands of the figure were her chief concern. It took not too long before she became satisfied with the position of the hands and of the figure generally, but for a time McGlynn feared that the face would never satisfy her. Her criticisms were endless; she kept making him change now the forehead, now the cheeks, now the mouth, chin, and eyes. It was a lot of work and Irmã Dores commented, “it is worth it to get it right.” Finally, and after much work, Irmã Dores expressed her satisfaction and ceased firing corrections. And the famous artist had to admit that, although it is a face that he would never have made without her direction, he much preferred the face of this statue to that of the one that he first made. They decided to call the modelling finished. The casting could begin.

Muitas, muitas saudades

Saudades is perhaps the most expressive word in the Portuguese language and is essentially untranslatable, as McGlynn learns. It contains all the pain of farewell, the memory of a wonderful time, the dearest love of friends, the wish for every blessing imaginable, hope for meeting again, gratitude for everything precious received—every feeling of good friends in the moment of farewell. But when muitas is placed before it, these feelings are intensified in a way that defies any analysis at all. Muitas, muitas saudades are exchanged at the farewell of the artist monk, who knew that the English phrase ‘parting is such a sweet sorrow’ is absolutely meaningless.

Irmã Dores’ alert intelligence and artistic sense touched him, particularly her perfect simplicity, naturalness and restraint, but also her quick, sensitive humor. As a farewell gift, she gives him two sheets of lined paper, on which she had beautifully written out the prayers of Our Lady and the Angel. Mother Provincial asks the priest monk to bless the statue. He places it before the tabernacle at the altar of the Blessed Virgin and prays the blessing form. As he climbs the steps to give the sacramental blessing, triumphant chanting in praise of Nossa Senhora de Fátima breaks out from the sisters, the first honor given to the new statue.

Just before his departure, the sisters ask Father McGlynn to perform an act of consecration to the Immaculate Heart in front of the statue. Before that, however, the artist monk wanted to win a final approval from Irmã Dores. One word he had learned was gostar, to like. And as an almost unprecedented daring, he asks the shepherd girl with her statue in view: “Gosta?” And with a smile she grants the biggest compliment ever made to the statue: “Gosto — I like it”. She takes her place with the sisters. The statue stands in front of the tabernacle and the priest carries out the consecration. And in all these muitas, muitas saudades he thinks of the expression of Our Lady, who is completely of light, “sweet but sad”.

The Empty Niche

Leaving behind Via Coimbra with its university, the first in the world, standing out serenely poised on the summit of the heights, overlooking the city and the surrounding fertile farmlands, the two Dominicans traveled back to thank the bishop of Leiria. McGlynn, however, had a bold thought.

The Immaculate Heart for the World
The Fatima Statue by Fr Thomas McGlynn OP, photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Given the history of its creation, the spot he had in mind for the statue was the niche over the main doorway of the basilica, eighteen feet high, which had to be filled to complete the facade of the building. He felt that if the idea could be presented to Catholics in the United States, who were devoted to Our Lady of Fatima, the funds could be raised to make it a perpetual symbol of American Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin at her newest great shrine. He was confident of American interest and generosity.

McGlynn had asked Irmã Dores to pray for the realization of this idea. But the bishop refused, merely saying he liked it better than the one he had previously shown him; and that was all he said about the statue. There had long been other plans for the niche. He would accept a copy of the statue for a niche inside the basilica. That was quite enough, however, to make him very happy. There was now the possibility that he would make a marble copy of the statue for Fatima itself.

But after a few days of praying in Fatima—of miraculous healings, of visiting the tombs of Jacinta and Francisco, and of discovering the mystery of the spring in the Cova da Iria, which rose when the first Holy Mass was celebrated there—they received news from the bishop. He wanted to see the American priest again. And the unexpected happens—the artist monk is commissioned to make a large version of the statue that the shepherd girl had helped design  for the niche in the bell tower.

The sculpture shows, said the bishop, why Mary appeared in Fatima: “to call the world to conversion, reparation and salvation by venerating Her Immaculate Heart.” That very evening, he cabled to New York the news about the statue. 

A smaller version of Fr. McGlynn’s Fatima statue in the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, NYC / Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Papal Approval

Stopping in Rome on his way back to the United States, Father McGlynn asked Pius XII, who received him in his private study, to bless the statue. The Pope spoke to him kindly, recalling their meeting in 1935, and thanking him for the beautiful papal bust he had created for the Apostolic Delegation in Washington D.C. McGlynn placed the statue on the papal desk and described Lúcia’s part in its creation. Pius XII. listens attentively and views the work with obvious satisfaction. Solemnly and slowly he blessed the statue. It was March 4, 1947.

At the end, the monk asks: “Will Your Holiness bless all those who are working to promote the message of Fatima in the United States?” The pope said that he would and made the Sign of the Cross.

Among the visits McGlynn paid in Rome, the reception of Irmã Dores’ statue in the Collegium Russicum was particularly moving, where the priests and seminarians discussed whether the veneration of the Immaculate Heart would be accepted in Russia. In view of Russian Marian devotion and the sense of symbolism of this people, they consider it possible. Finally, they put the statue on a pedestal in front of the iconostasis of the chapel, perform eastern prayers and consecrate it to the Immaculate Heart in the Russian language.

Irmã Dores knew that McGlynn wanted to write about Fatima, their statue, and his trip to Portugal. Soon after his return, he received a letter in which she reminded him of his intentions. “In your writing,” she asked, “please stress the spiritual meaning of things, in order to raise minds that today have become so materialistic to regions of the supernatural; so that they may understand the true meaning and purpose of the coming of our Lady to earth, which is to bring souls to heaven, to draw them to God.”

The result is the perhaps most beautiful and moving book of Fatima the authors know of. It became a book on the most misunderstood qualities of God in our times: His justice with its final consequences and His mercy, mediated through the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady of Fatima.

Editor’s note: Editorial assistance was kindly provided by Jane Stannus, a journalist and translator. She is a regular contributor to The Spectator USA. Her work has also appeared in Crisis Magazine, the Catholic HeraldCritic Magazine and the National Catholic Reporter.

This article is the final part in a five-part weekly series on the art of Fr. McGlynn and the work of Our Lady of Fatima. For more info about how Our Lady of Fatima inspired an artist at her shrine, you can read the first article here or see the ongoing series page here.

Sources and quotations for this include the book by Sr. Lucía dos Santos, Fatima in Lucia’s own Words. As well, quotations and the story of Fr. McGlynn can be found in the book, Vision of Fatima, which is available through Sophia Institute Press.

You can also read Fr. McGlynn’s firshand account of his conversation with Irmã Dores at this article.

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Dorothea and Wolfgang Koch write regularly for Catholic magazines in Germany. They are particularly interested in the idea of Christian democracy and the devotion to Our Lady that has shaped post-war Western Germany in the Adenauer Era. Their book Konrad Adenauer: The Catholic and His Europe is popular among German Catholics. Wolfgang Koch, a physicist, is Chief Scientist at one of the Fraunhofer Institutes and a professor of computer science at the University of Bonn. Their five children are now grown up, and Dorothea Koch, a chemist, works to spread knowledge about Konrad Adenauer from his home in Rhöndorf, a German National Historical Site.

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