Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

October 25, 2010

A brief tribute to a most remarkable woman: Jane Blaffer Owen (1915 – 2010)

Autumn and its colorful foliage are putting me in mind of New Harmony, Indiana, and the woman who  restored and revitalized this historic community.

New Harmony is located in the southwestern corner of Indiana along the Wabash River. Visiting this small town in the autumn is always a special treat for me. The spectacular foliage  combines with with buildings dating back to the early 1800s and buildings and sculpture of our own time, making for a very special experience.

To a large extent we owe this experience to one woman, the late Jane Blaffer Owen (1915 – 2010), whose efforts since the 1940s brought a town back from the brink of decline to become a setting in which the past and the present dialogue beautifully. Jane lived a life marked by exceptional altruism and passion for the causes she loved, notably in Houston and in New Harmony as the many tributes to her since her death on June 21, 2010, testify. Click here and here for examples.

I loved to visit Jane in New Harmony. where she would whisk around the town in her signature golf cart made to look like a Model-T. She would drop in on residents and visitors alike and make us all feel like we were long-time friends of hers—and in her mind, we were. She would often urge me to come and stay in New Harmony for a few days to renew my spirit. I gladly accepted her invitations, for Jane successfully tapped into the historic and spiritual core of New Harmony to allow people to experience what  brought the first settlers there over 200 years ago—there is a palpable sense of holiness in this place where God, humanity, and God’s natural creation  achieve a sense of harmony. It is now used by  a variety of religious groups as a place of spiritual renewal and by conferences of all stripes as a place in which dialogue can be most fruitful.

I first met Jane in 1987 at a conference held in a Benedictine monastery near Seattle, and from that point on, we were friends. She traveled two times to St. Louis to visit the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA): the first time was for MOCRA’s opening conference in November 1992, and the second time was in 2006 to see the Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds at MOCRA, an exhibition to which she immediately responded so delightedly that she brought the Clouds to New Harmony in the fall of 2007.

Jane Owen visiting MOCRA in 2007.

Jane Owen delighting in Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" at MOCRA in 2007.

Jane Owen at the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art Gallery.

Jane Owen in front of the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art Gallery, during its showing of Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds."

I attended Jane’s memorial service in New Harmony on July 25, fittingly held in the beautiful “Roofless Church” by Philip Johnson.  (You can read and watch local coverage of the event here.) Several weeks prior to her death, Jane presided at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Roofless Church, which more than any other church I have experienced unites the heavens and earth in a most natural way.

Roofless Church, New Harmony, Indiana.

The gateway entrance into the Roofless Church, New Harmony, Indiana.

When I arrived for the memorial service, I noticed that throughout this tight-knit community, almost every building, business and residential, had big white ribbon bows on their doors—bows that suggested peonies in full bloom. The peony was Jane’s favorite flower and, indeed, she promoted a little peony industry in New Harmony, in a nursery on the south side of the town. Every spring, thousands of peonies would be shipped to New York City for sale in floral shops, the sales of which brought income to New Harmony and fragrant natural beauty to the people of our nation’s largest city.

Memorial ribbon hung on a door in New Harmony, Indiana.

A memorial ribbon hung on a door in New Harmony, Indiana.

I had the occasion to visit New Harmony several weeks after the memorial service. Many of the bows were no longer on the doors of New Harmony’s buildings, but the spirit that Jane encouraged during her lifetime continues, which is exactly what she wanted to happen. Those of us who knew her miss her greatly, but New Harmony continues as a special place to heal the spirit and the body. From the historic Harmonist structures to the modern lines of Richard Meier’s Atheneum building; from the gracious beauty of Paul Tillich Park to the natural beauty of the Wabash River valley; from the ancient pattern of the labyrinth to the contemporary artwork commissioned by Jane, everything in New Harmony harmonizes together in an environment of tranquility and refreshment.

Please visit New Harmony, just  a few miles from I-64 on the Indiana – Illinois border (it’s a short 2.5 hour drive from St. Louis). Allow Jane Blaffer Owen’s legacy to touch you and so live on.

– Terrence Dempsey, S.J., Director

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