Mount St. Mary's College Pioneer Was 99 : Sister Ignatia Cordis, Artist, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Sister Ignatia Cordis, the last of the nine nuns who founded Mount St. Mary's College 61 years ago and an avant garde artist who overcame traditional trepidations about her work, died Wednesday at the West Los Angeles campus. She was 99.

Artist, art historian, costumer and teacher, during her six decades at the school she saw the Catholic women's college grow from an initial graduating class of 10 to a current enrollment of 1,250 at two campuses.

She also was there when the art building she had designed and taught in burned during the 1961 Bel-Air fire, destroying the bulk of her acclaimed watercolors, many of them done during a European trip. (The few that survived were those on display at a La Cienega Boulevard gallery.)

The first painting she created after that horrendous November day was of the destroyed building itself. That rendering of charred walls and scorched debris was chosen to hang in the new art hall, a symbol of rebirth.

Genesis of School

In a rare 1975 interview--granted in conjunction with the college's 50th anniversary--Sister Ignatia recalled the genesis of the school where she had taught art and designed costumes for school productions during most of her lengthy life:

"I was teaching at St. Mary's Academy on Slauson (a high school) and at commencement exercises in 1924 Bishop (John J.) Cantwell said 'we need a women's Catholic college. . . .' "

Within a year, Bishop (later Archbishop) Cantwell's order had taken on a humble reality and Sister Ignatia and eight other members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet had begun to erect a building that could accommodate a few expected students on the St. Mary's campus at Slauson Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard.

"That was out from the city in those days," she remembered, "and the only public transportation was the old Red (Pacific Electric) Car."

Took Turns Cooking

She also remembered how the seven took turns cooking for each other between classes.

Eventually the campus moved to its present mountaintop campus above Chalon Road, with a second campus on Adams Boulevard near Figueroa Street developed later.

With the exception of time off to earn bachelor and master's degrees from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, then affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, and three months of study and travel in Europe, Sister Ignatia remained at Mount St. Mary's until her death, although she retired from teaching in 1962.

She continued to paint after her retirement in her sometimes cubist style despite failing eyesight and chronic arthritis.

Overcame Objections

And she lived long enough to overcome some early objections to her contemporary approach to art--an approach deemed unfitting for a nun.

She liked in recent years to tell of a modish oil painting she had done of the Annunciation in the 1940s which "I put away in a portfolio because I thought nobody would like it."

But years later--after tastes and attitudes had changed--the work was chosen to hang in the sisters' quarters at the college and last year it was depicted on a campus Christmas card.

It was only one of two religious paintings she ever executed. Generally her oils, watercolors, casein and crayon and charcoal drawings involved the backs of buildings, which she said she found more interesting than the fronts.

'I Don't Have Time'

Religious paintings, she said, "would require a lot of research and I don't have time for things like that."

Her output increased in proportion to the time she could spend outside the classroom, for she considered herself a teacher first and an artist second. It was not until 1979--17 years after her retirement--that she sanctioned the first public showing ever devoted exclusively to her work. It attracted a predictably large crowd of former students, contemporary art dealers and critics and was held, she insisted, only because "Sister Magdalen (the college president) insisted on it."

Her funeral will be held Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in Mary Chapel at the mountaintop campus, a building she helped design.

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