By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
PELLA — Rebecca Madden wasn’t Catholic when she began her oil painting of a young Madonna eight years ago. But a terminal illness motivated the self-taught artist to complete the painting and join the Catholic Church before her death in June.
Her Madonna, which she titled “Be It Unto Me,” will be presented to St. Mary Parish in Pella on Aug. 15, during the 7 p.m. Mass for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Father John Spiegel, the parish’s pastor, brought Rebecca into the Catholic Church 11 days before her death on June 3 from brain cancer. Fr. Spiegel and Deacon Lowell Van Wyk visited Rebecca daily during the last week of her life, when she was in hospice. Rich Madden, Rebecca’s husband of 37 years, and their daughter, Rachel, were deeply touched by the parish’s response to their ordeal.
“Everyone was so good to us,” Rich said. “It is the right place to put that painting.” Their daughter, who lives in Virginia, agrees. “We felt it would be appropriate to donate it to the Pella church because of how wonderful Father John had been to us and to my mom.”
Rebecca’s initial interest in the Catholic faith began years ago in London, England, where she was born and raised as a member of the Church of England. But Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorism in London “blunted any early interest she might have had in Catholicism,” Fr. Spiegel said.
Rich, an Iowa native, and Rebecca traveled the world because of his military career. They retired to Pella. Rebecca, a self-taught painter, stayed close to home because of health challenges and immersed herself in her artwork. “Her paintings … that was her world,” Rich said. “She loved to paint beautiful women,” Rachel recalled. “My mother collected postcards of Victorian and Edwardian actresses. So a lot of the faces of the women she painted were inspired by these actresses from the 1890s.”
Rebecca also took an interest in watching Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), which she discovered while flipping channels, Rich said. “She started listening to Mother Angelica (the network’s founder). The more she listened the more she liked what she heard. She became more interested in the Catholic Church.” Rebecca told her husband, a Presbyterian, “I’m really thinking about becoming a Catholic.” He told her he was fine with whatever she decided.
Although she didn’t act on her desire immediately, she began her painting of the Madonna. “She wanted something to present to the Catholic Church that was an expression of her and an expression of the Catholic Church. She didn’t know she was dying then. She knew she was going to give it (the painting) to the Catholic Church and that she wanted to join.”
Last December, Rebecca suffered severe migraines and started losing her peripheral vision, Rich said. Doctors diagnosed a very aggressive form of brain cancer with a prognosis of just a few months to live. “When she found out, she just had to add the final touches to the painting. It had to be done before she couldn’t stand or see. Then she could rest when it was done and it was my turn to take care of it.”
Rebecca also decided it was time to enter the Catholic Church. She called St. Mary’s and spoke with Fr. Spiegel. “I first met with Rebecca and her husband at their home in Pella on May 16. She was received into the church on May 22,” Fr. Spiegel said. “Several days later she entered hospice care at Pella’s hospice house.” He presided at Rebecca’s funeral service June 7.
After learning about and viewing the painting, he told Rich and Rachel that the Pella parish would be happy to have it. “I was taken by the simple elegance of the figure of Mary; her contemporary image and grace-filled facial expression,” Fr. Spiegel said. “I immediately thought that this image would be a remarkable compliment to the simple and modern look of the interior of St. Mary, Pella.”
“We wanted it to go to a good home,” Rich said. “It’s going to a good home.”