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Thomas M. McGlynn, O.P. papers

Biographical note

Thomas M. McGlynn was born May 23,1906, the son of Frank McGlynn and Rose O'Beirne. His father was a well known actor famous for his stage portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. McGlynn received the habit of the Dominican Order September 8, 1925, taking the religious name of Brother Matthew. He was ordained a priest May 20, 1932 at St. Dominic's Church, Washington, DC by Archbishop Michael J. Curley of Baltimore, Maryland.

Two years later in 1934 he received his diploma in sculpture from the Royal Academy in Rome. He then studied at Cranbrook Academy, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, under the guidance of Carl Milles. After an apostolic ministry which included teaching, pastoring, and writing, in 1956 he went to Pietrasanta, Italy to sculpt the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. McGlynn remained in Italy until his untimely death September 3, 1977.

Thomas McGlynn began sculpting at the age of four with his first sculpture. He cultivated his artistic talent until the age of nineteen when he entered Dominican religious life and began his studies for the priesthood. He interspersed these years of study with creative work and later, as a priest, he continued to combine apostolic work with creative endeavors. However, McGlynn was foremost a priest: when apostolic responsibilities presented themselves, he wholeheartedly gave himself to them. Little sculpture was done during such times for he never considered his artistic work to be a mere pastime or form of recreation. He gave his sculpture the same undivided attention that he gave to his apostolic work.

As a religious whose apostolic work was guided by his religious superiors, he never requested an artistic apostolate. When he was placed in such an apostolate, however, he did so with all his creative spirit, and uncompromisingly demanded the conditions necessary to carry out such an apostolate. Such demands were not always kindly received, for, like most artists, he was not always understood nor fully appreciated. His forty-five years in the priesthood, therefore, were years of constant integration of artistic drive and priestly mission. Years before,he had concluded that it was far more important to celebrate Mass and to function as a priest than it was to be an artist, and so he had no conflict with his true vocation. Nevertheless, he sometimes found it difficult to integrate his creativity with his priestly work, for he experienced the inevitable tensions between his sense of "duty" and his artistic drive. His importance to us is the fact that he did successfully integrate these often competing claims upon his life.

Thomas McGlynn was a man of vision. Although his sculptures deal with realistic subject matter, a reading of his 1950 unfinished manuscript on modern art, "Cube and Cross," clearly shows that he understood well the value of the modern art movement. He defended modern artistic experimentation with its emphasis upon form and its de-emphasis of recognizable subject matter. He credited this contemporary movement with restoring primary importance to form in a work of art. But he also held that the advancement of art during this period did not preclude representational subject matter for artistic expression, a pluralism which art critics of the 1980s still recognize as valid.

In 1966 Tom McGlynn wrote to his friend of twenty-six years, Margueritte Kimball, of the Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and said, "I haven't changed much in thirty-five years. I still find perceptual reality interesting and quite compatible with stimulating form." He believed he was a modern artist, working in his own personal idiom. He never apologized for this idiom and he felt no need to change. All his art work was done in this style for it was valid to his creative needs and insights. His loyalty to his artistic ideals makes him stand out as an artist of integrity during a time when many artists seemed more interested in catering to the vagaries of the art market. One had to accept Tom McGlynn on his artistic level or not at all. Certainly he offered no apology for his work; it stood, and it stands, on its own terms.

His apostolic ministry clearly manifests that he was a visionary working for causes which were truly ahead of his time. In 1937 he applied his sculptural ability to a work of mercy, the making of artificial limbs for several victims of accidents. This work provoked great interest among companies which made artificial limbs as well as among rubber companies, whose emerging technology allowed for new developments in this area. For several years he worked with these companies in an attempt to formulate an inexpensive method for making artificial limbs, and undoubtedly his own methods were a spark that led to some of these eventual developments.

The year 1938 found him in Chicago directing an interracial center for poor, ill-educated blacks. He took an unpopular stance in defense of these victims of society, and his position was not well received. Sent from Chicago to an all white parish in Louisiana, he continued to defend the rights of the blacks and to fight against segregation. These experiences resulted in his writing the play, Caukey, in which whites are the minority and blacks the majority. While this play, which was produced off Broadway in 1944, received kind reviews from the critics, it sparked controversy in America because of its unsettling ideas.

Westbrook Pegler, the well known columnist, mentioned the play in his column and elaborated on the questions posed by the play. Tom McGlynn was acting and speaking out on the black-white issue at a time when it was not fashionable to do so. His intention was neither to be controversial nor fashionable but rather to bear witness to the Gospel message of love, freedom and justice.

While the death penalty has been a hotly debated issue in recent years, a chance relationship with a death-row inmate in a Louisiana prison in 1949 led Tom to be personally involved with several men on death-row over a period of two years. His concern for these men included visits to their families and correspondence with F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover. He began a book on their lives, There Is Thy Heart, which remains as an unfinished manuscript in the McGlynn Archives. This manuscript traces the lives of these men. Tom's own intentions in this work are expressed in the summary: "The necessity of salvation, and the evaluation of all things temporal in relation to eternity, it is hoped, will stand out clearly against a background of uncertainty regarding the intentions, motivations, and final destinies of those involved. The reader should acquire the feeling that, however much he may be subject to change in the perceptual struggle of good and evil, as were the characters of the book, the principles governing life and death are immutable." (There is Thy Heart. Summary, p. 9)

When he arrived in Pietrasanta, Italy in 1956, Tom soon discovered that no one was providing for the spiritual needs of the prisoners in the town's small prison. For twelve years he acted as their unofficial chaplain, celebrating Mass twice a week, until the prison was closed. The leading Italian newspapers carried the story of his officiating at the wedding of one of the inmates in the prison chapel. 1977 found him at his typewriter composing a letter to Governor Byrne of New Jersey asking him to veto legislation to reinstate the death penalty in the State. While this letter may seem to be a small matter, it does reflect Tom McGlynn's life-long concern for prisoners and their rights.

His sense of social concern was sparked once again by the disastrous flood which struck Florence, Italy in 1966. He and Harry Jackson, another resident American sculptor in Pietrasanta, formed a flood relief program to help victims of the flood. Not only did they collect and distribute money and supplies but they also personally helped in the cleaning of the city.

Although a believer in a just war, Tom McGlynn was an advocate of peace. As pastor of St. Helena's Church in Amite, Louisiana during the Second World War, he composed three prayers, one for those in the Armed Forces, one for Victory, presuming that we were engaged in a just war, and one for our Enemies. He was deeply conscious that our enemies, too, are worthy of our love and the love of God. Personally distraught by persons who spoke in a derogatory manner about the Germans and Japanese, he tried to correct such attitudes by his preaching. At the age of sixty-one, he and a nephew undertook a pilgrimage for penance and peace. They walked sixteen hundred miles from Rome to Fatima, Portugal to the Shrine dedicated to world peace. This walk took three months and they arrived May 12, 1967, the evening of the Feast Day of the Shrine. Few marches for peace have been so long, so hard, and so unglamorous.

His later years found him defending the rights of the unborn by his writing and preaching. Alarmed at the casual attitude of society towards the life and death of these innocent victims, he composed a poem, printed in a number of American newspapers, which expressed society's injustice toward these souls. Without question, both as a person and as a priest, Tom McGlynn was well ahead of his time in the social apostolate.

Thomas McGlynn was a man of great charm and wit, a magnetic soul who left a lasting impression upon those who were privileged to know him. His many personal qualities combined with his creative abilities led him into the circle of many of the most famous creative personalities of his period. Jacques Lipchitz was a devoted and dear friend as was Thomas Hart Benton. He spoke their language and he was completely at home with them. But he was just as friendly, kind and loving to the most simple of souls. In Pietrasanta, it was not unusual to find him answering his door to provide material need to the poor. There was one family, in particular, that he cared for spiritually and materially out of his own poverty. All persons were equal in his eyes and all were deserving of his time and talents. He heard the message of Christ "to love one's enemies, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and those in prison" and Tom acted upon our Lord's words.