Theology, studio art, and Irish studies come together in undergraduate’s creative research project on Ireland’s holy wells

Author: Hailey Oppenlander

Anja Renkes 1200Theology major Anja Renkes has always had a passion for nature, and will blend that interest with her major and minors in a research project in Ireland this summer.

The Grotto is one of the most beloved places on campus for many students, but for junior Anja Renkes, it’s where her passions and purpose combine.

“An important part of my identity that I bring here is my love of the outdoors and God's creation,” she said.

The open-air, prayerful environment of the Grotto captures her desire to stay active — she enjoys hiking and backpacking and is a member of the women’s rowing team — while its significance as an outdoor Catholic shrine, set in the landscape, represents her academic interests in theology, landscape art, and Irish culture.

Renkes will bring those three disciplines together in an international research experience this summer at the Dublin Global Gateway in the Irish Internship Program. She plans to create paintings of Ireland’s holy wells — small springs with devotional significance — that capture the area’s landscape as a pure gift from God.

Advised by Irish language and literature assistant teaching professor Mary O’Callaghan and Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies visiting fellow Mícheál Mac Craith, among others, Renkes will conduct research on the holy wells for six weeks, then spend two weeks creating paintings based on her visual and academic research of the wells, and Irish theological aesthetics.

“Through my Arts and Letters education, the professors and the content that they have been sharing with us have allowed us to know the truth about God. That He is good, that creation is good, and ultimately to know the truth about ourselves — that we are good.”

“Holy wells offer a unique link between awe-inspiring, grounding, natural landscapes and Catholic devotional practices,” said Renkes, a Sorin Fellow at the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, which awarded her a grant funding the majority of her trip. “These wells have a complicated history and have held special significance for thousands of years. The modern use of these wells as sites for Catholic devotional practices may offer a bridge for understanding the gift of material creation, our bodily life, and the mercy available through Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.

“The beauty of these landscapes can be a reminder of an incredible gift from God — His entering into the materiality of our world through the incarnation so that we can receive Jesus in the Eucharist during liturgy, becoming healed.”

A theology major with minors in studio art and Irish studies, Renkes said she feels blessed to be able to explore the Irish culture, faith, and art in this way.

“It all kind of feels like a dream to be honest,” she said. “But I know for certain that I have received an incredible gift in that this project, combining all my greatest interests, has brought me more joy than I thought was possible.”

Anja Renkes RosaryA photo of a rosary, taken by Renkes as part of an artistic exploration of learning to see creation as gift from God.

‘Alive and free’

Renkes’ love for being outside inspired her to enter Notre Dame as a biology major. Though she enjoyed those classes, once she took Catherine Cavadini’s Foundations of Theology course, she discovered a particularly significant joy in studying scripture and undertaking the theological work of faith seeking understanding.

Way Of St Francis IconAn icon of Jesus in a church along the Way of St. Francis, a pilgrimage that Renkes and her family experienced in Italy last summer.

“Through her lectures on Old Testament Scripture and a general introduction to scriptural exegesis, Professor Cavadini opened my eyes to why I find so much joy in science, which is because God created it,” she said.

As a theology major, Renkes has enjoyed reading from the Bible, Church fathers and passionate theologians, combining her Catholic faith with her studies.

“We learn to develop a system of inquiry that forms and shapes how we receive the world, learning to distinguish important nuances in the search for truth,” she said. “This has just made me feel fully alive and free.”

Her passion for Irish language and culture developed after she was looking for a unique language to fulfill her University and College requirements. At the Keough-Naughton Institute, she found encouragement and support in her endeavor to further explore her interests in Ireland.

“They have provided a familial community where I've been pushed academically, while at the same time totally supported and taken care of as a human being,” said Renkes, who plans to apply for a Fulbright grant next year to continue her research in Ireland after graduation.

‘A special opportunity’

Anja Renkes RowingRenkes is a member of the Notre Dame women's rowing team.

Renkes hopes to continue learning about theological aesthetics, and the powerful potential of images to unite people in understanding and compassion. She is also considering multimedia art and Catholic missionary work and service as a future vocation.

But what gives Renkes the energy to learn a new language, participate in Division I athletics, and submit proposals for an extensive research project?

Renkes said her growing realization of God’s love has helped her to appreciate every single opportunity on campus and abroad.

“That has been a huge part of my life at Notre Dame, and has been what’s allowed me to take advantage of and be present in receiving all the gifts that Notre Dame has given me,” she said.

Even when college life presents its challenges, Renkes finds joy in giving everything to God.

“I am convinced that in this time in our lives, we have a special opportunity to be dependent on God, and to be listening and looking for how he’s working in our lives,” she said. “There is no way anyone can do life alone, and the beautiful thing is — we don’t have to.”

Renkes has seen God’s mercy and goodness working in her life through other people and is especially inspired by her classmates and her professors. She recognizes that the community she has found in the Department of Theology, Department of Irish Language and Literature, Department of Art, Art History, and Design and in friends and and personal mentors have made this joy in the struggle of college possible.

“Through my Arts and Letters education, the professors and the content that they have been sharing with us have allowed us to know the truth about God,” she said, “that He is good, that creation is good, and ultimately to know the truth about ourselves — that we are good.”