Sister Gwen Floryance: Inspired by Faith and Beauty

It was music that provided the surprising first step to religious life for Sister Gwen Floryance. It is a journey that this School Sister of St. Francis has been on with her community for 76 years.

When Sister Gwen was growing up in West Allis, Wisconsin, in the early 1930s, her family’s parish, Our Lady, Help of Christians, did not have a school, so she attended public schools. She recalls that she didn’t know about Catholic schools until her family moved to a new house in Milwaukee and joined St. Anthony of Padua Parish.

Because she liked to play the violin and sing, young Gwen joined the choir in her new parish. The choir director at that time, Sister M. Martin Wenzel, would be the one to introduce her to religious life.

“I would stay after choir rehearsals to help put the books away,” Sister Gwen recalled. “One day, Sister Martin said to me, ‘I bet you want to be a sister.’ Without thinking, I said ‘yes!’ In the following days, she talked to me about the religious life and I liked what I heard.”

“Entering religious life was such a wonderful experience. It was like a whole new life for me.”

Sister gwen floryance

In 1944, at the age of 16, Sister Gwen decided to enter St. Joseph Convent on Milwaukee’s south side. “Entering religious life was such a wonderful experience,” she said. “It was like a whole new life for me.” She said she wanted to be like her grandmother, “Whom I admired for her beautiful example of piety. I was drawn to how she prayed.”

On the day she entered the convent, she bid farewell to her parents, changed into her new clothing, and went to St. Joseph Chapel to pray. “As I knelt there, I felt extremely happy,” she remembered. “I said in my heart, ‘God, leave me here forever.’”

In 1946, Sister Gwen’s reception year, Mother Corona asked her to choose a profession: musician, teacher or homemaker. Sister Gwen chose teaching, and taught primary grades in both Catholic and public schools for the next 50 years.

“What I loved about teaching was the fact that I loved little children so much,” Sister Gwen said. “Caring for my younger, four-year-old sister at home had been the joy of my life, and this was a continuation of that experience. Children enrich my life.”

Always Seeking Inspiration

Art was always her favorite subject to teach because, “There was no manual. I went to the public library and gathered ideas and new techniques and color schemes. I was learning what I could present to the children of any age.”

Early in her teaching career, there was a contest for rural schools to present an art piece depicting farm life. She thought, “How might a young child contribute?” She came up with the idea.

“I taught my first graders how to correctly and simply draw a large barn in perspective, step by step, and gave suggestions on where farm animals might appear in the picture,” she said. “I was so delighted to see their child-like creatures on each well-filled page. One of my students, a six-year-old girl, won the state contest and received a plaque. That encouraged me!”

On another occasion, Sister Gwen was teaching eighth graders who felt that they had no talent for drawing. She decided to bring in an unusual model for inspiration.

“I obtained a hunter’s big-horned sheep head that he had mounted in his home,” Sister Gwen said. “I hung the model in the room before the class came in. When the students walked in, I told them to pull their desks to any place they chose. I asked them to look for light and dark areas, geometric shapes, and to fill the whole page using their charcoal.

“They worked feverishly and were so successful!” Sister continued. “I put their work up in the hallway and the next morning when they came in, the students stood and looked at all the remarkable results. My principal said those pictures were a selling point for our school at registration time!”

Sister Gwen Floryance

A New Pace of Life

After a half century of teaching, primarily in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Sister Gwen retired in 2004 and focused her energies on prayer and presence, along with continuing to create art herself. She now lives at Sacred Heart, her community’s 77-unit continuum of care facility on the same campus as the St. Joseph Center motherhouse that she first entered three-quarters of a century ago.

She has worked in ceramics, calligraphy, paper-cutting, watercolor and oil painting, among many other types of art.

These days, her focus is primarily on painting. “I paint whatever comes to mind. I always found time to do my own art, and now I can do art as long as I wish,” she said. Her recent work has included landscapes and religious imagery. A depiction of St. Francis of Assisi and a charming rural scene are just two of the many beautiful oil-painted canvases that are neatly organized in each corner of her Sacred Heart apartment.

Sister Gwen is grateful for the care that she receives from her community in retirement, especially since now, at 95, she needs the assistance of a wheelchair. “I woke one morning and that was the way it was,” Sister Gwen said of her need for mobility assistance. “At least I knew that God was paying attention to me. I don’t want him to forget me!”

— by Katie Love