Irma Wagner, at 81; former nun was artist, activist

Ms. Wagner advocated for the poor and downtrodden. Her block prints, along with poetry and prose of those she admired, were featured in calendars she produced.
Ms. Wagner advocated for the poor and downtrodden. Her block prints, along with poetry and prose of those she admired, were featured in calendars she produced.

When artist Irma Wagner was diagnosed 12 years ago with Parkinson’s disease, she carried on the way friends knew she would, as usual.

She continued to turn out exquisite calendars, which she did from 1996 to 2010, that featured her block prints, which she paired with the poetry and prose of authors, activists, and artists she admired, from Helen Keller to Albert Einstein.

Each calendar had a theme, said Fred Marchant, a poet and professor of English at Suffolk University. In 2010, it was “Our Place on Earth,’’ and in that calendar she matched her print of a pine tree and shore birds against a sunrise, with an excerpt from one of Marchant’s poems, “First Song Again.’’

Trust above all

the small but persistent

impulse to sing.


“It was just like Irma to see in the sun rising again, and in the trees and birds thriving on the shore, an image of what we can trust in the world, namely that deep down inside all of existence, there is a persistent real affirmation of the beauty that is possible in life, an impulse to sing,’’ he said.

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Ms. Wagner, a former nun who advocated for the poor and downtrodden and strongly opposed the Vietnam War, died April 28 at her apartment in the Jamaica Plain three-decker where she had lived for 36 years. She was 81. The cause of death was respiratory failure and Parkinson’s disease, said friend and fellow activist Mary Meehan of Jamaica Plain.

Ms. Wagner’s block prints, along with poetry and prose of those she admired, were featured in calendars she produced.

Meehan, like others, shared many walks with Ms. Wagner to Arnold Arboretum, Plum Island, and other places of natural beauty that inspired her art. Together, Ms. Wagner and Meehan took part in peaceful demonstrations, against nuclear war in New York City and against Operation Desert Storm in Washington.

Sales of Ms. Wagner’s calendars, cards, and posters benefited nonprofits, including Boston’s Poor People’s United Fund, cofounded in the 1970s by the late Kip Tiernan and Fran Froehlich, and Rosie’s Place, founded by Tiernan.

“She supported not just PPUF, but other organizations whose missions foster compassion for people who are poor, homeless, imprisoned, or just old and misunderstood,” said Froehlich. “Irma had a gentle and kind spirit.”


For years, Ms. Wagner painted posters and cards to benefit the Women’s Lunch Place in Boston, for poor and homeless women, Meehan said. She designed a logo for the organization and a Mother’s Day card that could be sold to raise money, she said.

Sue Morong, interim executive director of the Women’s Lunch Place, said that in 2007, when she joined the organization as its chief financial officer, Ms. Wagner’s design for its annual Mother’s Day card brought in $135,000.

Ms. Wagner’s longtime friend Anna Warrock of Somerville said, “Irma’s work as an artist dovetailed with her activism and her concern for others.’’

Ms. Wagner was a friend and supporter of the late Jim Harney, a former priest who was jailed with the Milwaukee 14 after burning draft card files in that city during the Vietnam War.

David Weinstein of Jamaica Plain met Ms. Wagner through Harney, who was a photographer, while Ms. Wagner and Weinstein wrote for the newsletter Common Sense.


“Irma was a renaissance woman,’’ said Weinstein, who called her an “artist, writer, political activist, community leader, [and] responsible citizen.” He also said she was “an honest and supportive friend.’’

Weinstein’s son — Stevie Weinstein-Foner of Brooklyn, N.Y., who had known Ms. Wagner all his life — said he considered her “my first spiritual teacher.”

“She held space for the sacred in our everyday lives, through her art, her ceremonious celebration of pagan and earth-based rituals, and her graceful, soft speech,” he said. “What she shared with us was a gift, showing us how deeply loving and honoring being alive brings us into harmony with the Earth, each other, and ourselves.’’

Irma Susanne Wagner was born in 1931 in rural Pine Creek, Pa., to John Leo and Ilma Emilie Scheid Wagner and grew up on a farm in Glenshaw, Pa. She and her siblings took a bus to grade school each morning, but walked the 2 miles home. When she went to high school, at Divine Providence Academy, “Irma had to take two streetcars each way,” said her brother, Arthur of Allison Park, Pa.

Ms. Wagner was a former nun who advocated for the poor and downtrodden.

The family was devoutly Catholic, he said, and right after Ms. Wagner graduated from Divine Providence Academy at age 18, she became a nun, joining the order of the Sisters of Divine Providence. “We had three aunts who were nuns,’’ he said.

While in the convent, she trained to be a teacher, studying first at Carlow University in Pittsburgh and later earning a master’s degree in art at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Warrock said in an e-mail.

She taught at schools in Pittsburgh and then in New England, including St. Francis Xavier School in Weymouth and Sacred Heart School in Kingston.

In 1974, she moved with four other nuns into an apartment in the Wollaston section of Quincy, where they started a food coop. One of them, Maura Monahan of Weymouth, said the group “believed we were more effective in a neighborhood than in a convent.’’

Monahan recalled that the climate in the church had changed under Pope John XXIII and religious people were reconsidering how they lived their lives. Nuns started to exchange their habits for street clothes. “Two of us still taught in a Catholic school, only we drove instead of walking to work,” she said.

The year after Ms. Wagner moved to Wollaston, she left the convent. The four former nuns then moved to an apartment in Dorchester, Monahan said, and found jobs. Ms. Wagner became a secretary at the Church of the Covenant in Boston.

In 1989, Ms. Wagner was one of four women who spent a year in Cuba training Cuban teachers to teach English.

“Irma had a magnetic personality and made a lot of friends there,’’ said Frances Perkins of Jamaica Plain, one of the four. “She also taught us about Cuba’s exotic nature.’’

Ms. Wagner’s ability to make friends and keep them was evident during her illness when they saw to it that she was never alone. Some would come and read poetry to her. Her spirit never vanished, friends said.

Near the end, Warrock and Cheri Stokes of Jamaica Plain took turns staying overnight.

“Irma really believed death was a part of life,’’ Stokes said.

Ms. Wagner had to climb 55 steps to reach her third-floor apartment in Jamaica Plain, Stokes said, and “until February, Irma was climbing them to reach it.’’

In a column she wrote in the newsletter Common Sense in 1987, Ms. Wagner captured her outlook on life.

“The dark is often an ominous thing for us,’’ she wrote. “We associate it with the shadow world, with blindness, hopelessness. Yet darkness can nurture our imagination and release our creativity. I think of Helen Keller, deaf and blind from infancy, whose struggle with that total darkness resulted in a strength and sense of fulfillment most of us will never know.’’

In addition to her brother Arthur, Ms. Wagner leaves her brother Roy, of Eldersburg, Md.

A service will be held June 29 at 10 a.m. in the hall of First Church Unitarian Universalist in Jamaica Plain. Prior to the service, a walk will be held in Arnold Arboretum; those who would like to join in should meet at 9 a.m. at the main entrance of the arboretum.

Gloria Negri can be reached at