En lumière: Sister Noëlla Doyon

Sister Noëlla Doyon, calligrapher and centenarian

By Claire Bourassa – Photos by Diane St-Antoine

Sister Noëlla holding a photo of herself in 1994, then the librarian at St-Joseph High School. The next year, she began learning calligraphy.

Last fall, I answered the call from our president Mathieu Doucette to send a birthday card incorporating calligraphy to our centenary member, Sister Noëlla Doyon. She invited me to come and visit her at Les Jardins d’Aurélie Seniors Residence in St-Hyacinthe, which houses the communities of the Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Precious Blood. From our first contact in February, I realized that I was in the presence of an exceptional centenarian! Sister Noëlla is a very petite woman who moves at a brisk pace with a simple cane. She has a keen eye and is quick to speak and has a wonderful sense of humour.

“Calligraphy brings me life!”

An interest in calligraphy was always present in her life, especially as a teacher where she perfected her writing on classroom chalkboards.

“At school, you had to make beautiful pictures on the chalkboard, write beautiful sentences with an author’s eye that you embellished with flowers. We would run with it for four to five months, then at Christmas we would switch it up. I always said that every time I entered the class, I looked at the board! I had a teaching colleague in Granby who was a model for me. By slowly inclining my hand, I eventually entered the realm of the italic, and that was definitely my best work!”

The chance meeting of Yannick Durand

In the fall of 1995, at 74 years old with more than 35 years working as a teacher and 18 years as a librarian, Sister Noëlla was finally on sabbatical and ready to take up a new challenge.

“During an activity at the YMCA, I heard about the work of Yannick Durand. The same day, I made an appointment with her at the Essence du papier boutique on rue St-Denis in Montreal, where she worked. “

Sister Noëlla quickly started her lessons with Yannick at the Saidye-Bronfman Centre, then went to her Calligrafia workshop on blvd St-Laurent.

“A real Frenchwoman! She corrected every single letter we wrote,  and sometimes she granted us a hand-drawn star. It was Yannick who introduced me to calligraphy. She was the one who wowed me the most by encouraging me. She didn’t have to repeat herself, I could spot that as a former teacher. Some teachers repeat, but not Yannick! We could feel that we were making progress with her there, but we had to practice! “

During her early years in calligraphy, Sister Noëlla experienced more difficult times.

“One evening, I arrived back at the Residence completely discouraged. It was taking me too long to get it right. I felt completely blocked! I went back to Yannick’s class and asked her to show me the letters that I had the most difficulty with, the ones that are more elongated, so that I could memorize them properly. I did a tremendous amount of those afterwards!”

This beautiful master-student relationship lasted 10 years and ended with the death of Yannick in January 2006. In the special autumn-winter 2006 issue of L’Arabesque devoted to Yannick Durand, Sister Noëlla paid tribute to her: “Yannick, an expert in the pen… All her works amazed me… I thank God for the luck of having crossed her on my life’s path […] I hope that her God in heaven will fulfill her. Goodbye to my dear calligraphy friend.

Continuation of calligraphy and exploration of other writing styles

After the loss of Yannick, Sister Noëlla continued her training in calligraphy. In Longueuil, she met calligraphers Roger Beaudouin and Nicole Morin, a former student of Yannick.

“[Nicole] told me to go see Mr. Beaudoin. He will prepare a beautiful duck feather quill for you! Nicole also taught me, but the writing style did not have enough of an angle to really entice me. She did help me in the creation of a calligraphic landscape.”

She also followed courses to embellish her Italic, especially capital letters, with Luc Saucier and Gilles Champagne, among others. A little later, she enrolled in an illumination class with Brigitte Papineau.

“I did the letter E, but I found it too long. I am not patient enough with the gilding process.”

For someone who dedicated so much of her practice to the Italic hand, trying Copperplate felt completely natural. 

“Joy Deneen gave me Copperplate lessons. I wanted to learn it because I had worked on a similar technique throughout my teaching years with cursive writing. But I did not master those majuscules! “

Participation in members’ exhibitions

From 2005 to 2010, Sister Noëlla participated in several exhibitions of the Societé. To illustrate this active period, she showed us a small album of photos, exclaiming: “It was great fun! I tried several new things! “

She is particularly proud of her work in 2011, as part of the exhibition: Urban Dialogue. She wrote a sentence which testifies to her great openness towards the Other: Maintaining the quality of dialogue in Montreal shows great fraternity. From a visual aspect, it was her first time integrating cartography with calligraphy. 

Calligrapher in her community

For several years, Sister Noëlla was an active calligrapher in her religious community, particularly in addressing numerous envelopes. On nuns’ anniversaries, she prepared tribute pieces on white backgrounds using felt-tip pens.

“It was a slippery surface! I put a few flowers at the bottom, sometimes even artificial flowers. The sisters still tell me about it because they loved my paintings. “

In 2015, the last year of her active practice, she designed panels with the names of nuns celebrating jubilee anniversaries, such as sixtieths and fiftieths.

“I wrote all the names on a big card. Nowadays, everything is computerized!”

Hassan Massoudy, her latest favorite

Before departing, she confided in us her crush on the Iraqi calligrapher Hassan Massoudy, established in France since 1969. She discovered him due to his many lectures on calligraphy and, to this day, keeps a photo of the artist at work.

She also wants to give this advice to novice calligraphers: “Continue to be tenacious! If you don’t like it, drop it. If you like it, you have to work for it to be presentable and for you to have some recognition.”

Au revoir, Sister Noëlla. Thank you for your joie de vivre, your love of calligraphy and this wonderful encounter!

Sister Noëlla’s life in a few dates

December 5, 1919 Born in St-Guillaume, a village near Drummondville. She is the second in a family of 11 children, five girls and six boys. Her sister Jeannine, who is 10 years her junior, is part of the same religious congregation.

1934 – 1937 Boarding school in St-Hyacinthe at the Sisters of Saint-Joseph

1937 – 1939 Teacher in the village of St-Guillaume

1939 Summer trip to Albany, NY

1939 – 1943 Entrance and novitiate with the Sisters of Saint-Joseph community

1943 – 1975 Teacher in Montérégie and in the Eastern Townships

1975 – 1977  Library studies training at Ste-Thérèse college in Blainville and Collège Maisonneuve in Montreal

1977 – 2002 Librarian at St-Joseph High School, St-Hyacinthe

1978 Trip to Israel after obtaining a certificate in Theology at the Université de Sherbrooke

1991 Trip to France, a community gift for her jubilee as a religious professional (50 years)

1994 Bachelors in Science (B.Sc) at l’Université de Montréal

1995 Sabbatical in Montréal and discovery of calligraphy with Yannick Durand. Became a member of the Société des calligraphes de Montréal

2002 – 2015 Librarian at Résidence Notre-Dame, St-Hyacinthe

2005 – 2010 Participated in the annual members exhibits of the Société

2015 End of the practice of calligraphy. Sister Noëlla continues her membership because of her interest in calligraphy and the members of the Société.

December 5, 2019 100th birthday!

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