A Dream on Canvas

Since the early eighties, Bill and Mary Agee have experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, all in the public eye. At thirty-nine, Bill, who is from Boise, Idaho, became the youngest CEO of a Fortune 100 company in American history when he assumed the position at Bendix Corporation in 1976. Mary Elizabeth Cunningham, who grew up in a devout Catholic home in Hanover, New Hampshire, graduated at the top of her class from Wellesley College, finished with several honors at Harvard Business School and became a corporate vice president at Bendix Corporation when she was twenty-eight years of age.

After an ugly and very public ordeal, spawned by rumors that Bill and Mary were engaged in a romantic affair, Mary resigned from Bendix in 1980. She landed on her feet four months later as vice president of strategic planning at Seagrams and within two years was promoted to executive vice president of planning.

While Bill and Mary each have led careers culminating in significant achievements, more noteworthy, so far as the secular media is concerned, have been their alleged shortcomings. While they were both at Bendix, for instance, Bill and Mary’s friendship was material for journalistic speculation. Mary’s early promotion to corporate vice president raised some eyebrows and became ammunition for Bill’s critics. Fourteen years later, and a full ten years after Mary walked away from corporate life to establish and run a widely praised nonprofit organization, Bill’s dismissal from Morrison Knudsen Corporation after nearly seventeen years with the company provided another occasion for a Bill-and-Mary story.

Friends of both Bill and Mary were incensed over what they considered the hostile, if erroneous, media coverage surrounding Bill’s termination. But for Mary, more important matters had since taken center stage. In fact, as she will tell you, despite the media’s criticism, the last ten years have turned out to be the most fulfilling years of her life and the most spiritually poignant.

When Mary put her business career to rest in 1985, she did so in order to begin living the life that she felt called to live — a life of motherhood and of quiet devotion to the Lord and his work. For Mary that work has been very specific. For it was in 1985, after suffering the loss of her first-born in a late miscarriage, that she felt moved to bring to life a means by which pregnant women in desperate circumstances would be able to have their babies safely. What came into being was an organization called the Nurturing Network, and since the Network’s inception, Mary has spent more than sixty hours each week for no salary counseling women through crisis pregnancies. To date, the organization has enabled nearly seven thousand women to give birth. Apart from counseling, Mary’s life is centered on her husband and their two young children, leaving little time for any leisure activity.

What keeps her resilient, what has been her salvation, Mary acknowledges, is her spiritual life. And over the past two years, something has unfolded in Mary’s spiritual life that has profoundly affected her own faith and the faith of many around her. Beginning in 1993, an image took form in Mary’s dreams and in her prayer life. She experienced the image repeatedly and with increasing frequency and vividness over the course of a full year. A powerful expression of divine love, it is an image of the Virgin Mary holding a young mother and child in her arms. Mary had seen many portraits of the Madonna embracing the infant Christ, but what struck her as unusual about her own vision was the presence of a third figure, a young mother.

Sometime around Mother’s Day in 1994, she was moved to share her vision with a friend and painter named Lynn Lupetti. It was Mary’s sense that she was to look for a way to bring the vision to life so that others could share in its message of comfort. Approaching Lynn was no small step for Mary — the vision was precious to her and she had become deeply protective of it. What she proposed was not a project conceived of by a strategic planner, or a patron of the arts — for no contract or commission would be issued for the work. Instead, her visit with Lynn was Mary’s response to what she felt was a distinct calling in her life. And the process of bringing her vision to canvas has been, if anything, a spiritual lesson in listening and waiting.

The story behind the painting, one might say, begins before Mary first experienced her dream vision at all, even before she and Bill had their two children and moved to Carmel. Bill and Mary were married in 1982, two years after the breakdown at Bendix. During the early eighties, they lived far from the public eye on Cape Cod, on a quiet island called Oyster Harbors. It was there that the Nurturing Network first took shape. And it was, in part, with the Nurturing Network in mind that Mary would first entrust Lynn with her vision.

If one were to ask Father Bill Nolan, a monsignor and family member who mentored Mary and who acted as a father figure for her from the age of five when her parents separated, he would probably say that the Nurturing Network is the perfect embodiment of Mary’s commitment to service and to work. But the Network is not a project she developed with these particular commitments in mind. While the Network certainly benefits from Mary’s imagination and powerful business acumen, its inspiration is grief and loss. For the Network is the fruit of profound suffering: it is the fruit of the suffering caused by the death of Mary’s first child in a second-trimester miscarriage.

During her recovery, Mary began to experience a deep empathy for women who had been pressured into seeking abortions. Like her, these women had been pregnant, had briefly experienced motherhood, but had been denied the joys of childbirth. And like her; these women had suffered from postnatal and post-mortem depression. But unlike her, these women had been offered little support. Mary began to wonder what alternatives existed for women in such crises, and over several months, she conducted extensive research in an effort to learn more.

As part of her research, Mary interviewed a hundred women who had gone through with abortions. Of these women, ninety-one said that if they could have escaped the pressures inflicted by boyfriends, family members, or employers, they without question would have delivered their babies. Each had desperately needed to find a way out of her immediate circumstances in order to have her baby safely and confidentially. As Mary discovered, no organization existed on a national level to provide pregnant women with meaningful work elsewhere or prompt college transfer opportunities in the face of physical abuse or the threat of exposure. Mary concluded that “the word ‘choice’ was cruel rhetoric with no basis in reality” for the vast majority of women. She and Bill sold their vacation home in order to acquire the start-up capital, and, using her contacts, friends, and resources, Mary committed to forming a wide-ranging college and employer network.

What her efforts of the past decade have amounted to is a, real alternative for women, many of whom are considering abortion — an organization backed by an army of some 22,000 volunteers in all fifty states. A woman who is pregnant and in crisis can phone the Network’s 800 number and, after extensive interview work, have more than just a place to stay for the duration of her pregnancy. The Network will offer her a home similar to the home where she grew up, paying attention to whether a woman has allergies, a religious affiliation, a particular handicap, among other details. If a woman is in need of physical protection or confidentiality, the Network will relocate her to another state. She will be offered employment, job training, or education, according to her needs, and, of course, all of the necessary medical care and counseling. This does not mean that a client of the organization has to move in order to qualify for Network benefits — the Network provides an individually-tailored program of services for every woman who comes to the organization for help. And the Network shoulders the full financial burden. In ten years, not a single woman whom the Network has counseled has chosen to go forward with an abortion.

When the image of the Virgin Mary, the young mother, and the infant child first took form years later in Mary’s dreams and prayers, Mary’s sense of the figures was vague and indistinct — she recognized the figure of the Blessed Mother, but the lines and the other faces in the vision were blurred. Over time as the image, which was in full color, became increasingly more persistent and more vivid, Mary began to recognize the face of the young mother in the Virgin’s arms. It was the face of a client of the Nurturing Network, a seventeen-year-old girl named Joy, whom Mary had been counseling throughout her difficult pregnancy.

Joy Flynn, a charming, quietly beautiful young woman of racially mixed parentage, was a sixteen-year-old junior at Notre Dame High School in nearby Salinas when she became pregnant. Her pregnancy was a time of great emotional tumult, of confusion and despair. And although Joy knew that she was pregnant almost immediately after conception, three months went by before she found the gumption to tell her family. She was not afraid she would lose their support — hers is a pious, loving Catholic home, and her parents’ loyalty was never in question. Joy’s reluctance and her suffering were spawned, rather, by a complex sense of regret, by a deep understanding of her error.

Joy’s pregnancy was a struggle for her family, and for very particular reasons. Eighteen years earlier Joy’s mother, Pam, found herself, like Joy, unmarried and pregnant. She was twenty-six years of age then — a professional, well- salaried young woman, living in Atlanta, far from her hometown of Boston and just as far from her Catholic faith. When she disclosed the news that she was pregnant to her peers, Pam came under great pressure to have an abortion. She would not consider it, and, soon after she made her intentions known, she lost her job. But what she gained was Joy. It was some months later that Pam returned to the Catholic faith. She met her husband, Michael Flynn, in church, and after they were married, he adopted Joy.

While her own crisis pregnancy was a profound blessing, the last thing, as one can imagine, that Pam wanted her daughter to experience was what she herself experienced — and certainly not as a teenager. When Pam learned that Joy was pregnant, she felt that she had failed her daughter somewhere along the way. So she spoke with Bishop Sylvester D. Ryan, who lives at the Carmel Mission Basilica. Bishop Ryan spoke with Mary Agee.

Bishop Ryan, who is sixty-three years of age, had recently chosen to serve as a member on the board of directors for the Nurturing Network. He assumed the position because he was powerfully convinced that the Network, as an organization that both emphasizes the life of the unborn and empowers women to bring that life into the world, is one of the “missing links” in the debate over abortion in America. He knew from firsthand experience that the Network had turned the lives of countless women around. Mary Agee was his trusted friend, and he was well acquainted with her dedication and with her rigor. Bishop Ryan anticipated the trials that the Flynns, who were also his friends, would face during Joy’s pregnancy, and so he entrusted the family to Mary’s care personally. She agreed instantly to help them.

Bishop Ryan must have intuitively known that Mary would have her work cut out for her because six months into Joy’s pregnancy, Pam herself at the age of forty-four became pregnant with her sixth child. Mary counseled both Pam and Joy for the duration. And only months after guiding Joy through labor, Pam gave birth to a son, whom she named Joseph Ryan for the bishop. Bill and Mary Agee stood alongside Pam at Joseph’s christening, as his godparents.

In September, four months after she had first shared her vision with Lynn Lupetti, Mary invited Pam to bring Joy and her infant daughter, Shiyah, to Lynn’s studio in Carmel. Lynn was just preparing to begin work on the painting of Mary’s vision. As is Lynn’s practice, she wanted to set up the scene beforehand using models to replicate as closely as possible what Mary had described to her. This way, she could take photographs and later be able to paint from the prints. With Lynn’s full agreement, Mary asked Joy and Shiyah to model for the mother and child; a friend of Lynn’s named Diana would model for the Blessed Mother.

Only a month before this photo session, Mary had doubts that Lynn would be the artist to give form to her vision. Mary and Lynn’s dialogue, which had taken four months to unfold, was marked by initial reluctance on Lynn’s part, and by anguish on Mary’s part.

Lynn, who is a tiny woman of fifty-seven years, and Mary had become friends several years earlier. They were world’s apart when they first met — Lynn was an artist, and Mary was heavily involved with the Nurturing Network and busy homeschooling her children. But the two “somehow found each other’s hearts,” as Mary describes it, and when Mary first spoke to Lynn about her vision, she trusted that, Lynn, who was not a Christian at the time, would treat the vision with care and with reverence.

She also knew that Lynn possessed the technical skills to create something beautiful. Some years before, Lynn had asked the Agees if they would allow their children to model for one of her paintings. They agreed, so long as the children’s identities were not revealed, and Lynn had captured in the children’s faces a unique radiance, a sense of magical delight. But Lynn’s previous paintings are peopled with Lilliputian hosts of elves and wizards and knights — the subjects of children’s fantasies. Even if Lynn did agree to do the painting of Mary’s vision, Mary wondered whether the work would have a fantastical rather than a holy quality about it.

While Lynn was taken with what Mary described, she believed Mary was talking to the wrong person. “I don’t see myself painting the Blessed Mother,” she said. Lynn’s response left Mary feeling that she had made a grave error in judgment. Still, she left the studio with the sense that God would direct her to the artist for whom the vision was intended. But over the next three months Lynn would contact Mary twice more — the image, Lynn said, was “burning” in her heart.

Lynn proposed next that she do the painting for a sizable commission, as painting was how she made her living. Plus, Lynn thought that such a project would amount to the most serious work she had ever done; she wanted the finest silks for her models and other accouterments to make the painting just right. Mary declined, saying that the work “would not be about money, but would have to be undertaken by someone with a spiritual hunger.” While there was no discord between Mary and Lynn, it was at this point that Mary sensed their dialogue might have ended. Until Lynn called again four weeks later.

Not only did Lynn now agree that she would take the necessary months out of her rigorous painting schedule and do the work for no commission, but she also said that, based on Mary’s description of the Virgin during their conversation in May, she believed she may have located a woman to model for the Blessed Mother. When Mary saw photographs of this woman, she knew that she and Lynn were finally on the same track — the woman, with her dark features and Italian bone structure, had the very face of the Virgin as Mary had seen it in her dream. It was also at about this time that the face of the young mother in Mary’s vision had begun to come clear as the face of Joy Flynn.

Soon after their meeting, Lynn and Mary scheduled a photo session for September. When Mary arrived at Lynn’s studio that afternoon, she noticed that the room was beginning to change. Instead of the unusual objets d’art that used to give the studio a modish look, a simple cross and rosary beads now hung on the wall. Gregorian chants played softly and a few votive candles had been lit. Mary hoped that what she was sensing was true — she hoped that the studio was a manifestation of what was happening inside of the artist.

When Joy arrived, she changed into a soft white gown, and Lynn positioned her with Shiyah and Diana on a platform just beneath the skylight. Before Lynn took her place behind the camera, she asked Mary to look through the lens, welcoming her suggestions to adjust the scene. The arrangement was not right — Diana seemed tender as she embraced Joy, but there was little intimacy between Diana and the baby. As she looked on, what was more clear than ever in Mary’s mind was what she had told so many of the women she had counseled, women who had previously experienced abortions and who didn’t believe that they could ever be forgiven. She had asked each woman to visualize the Blessed Mother holding in her arms the lost child; she had asked each woman to imagine Our Lady’s face resting upon her and to let God’s forgiving love into her heart. With Mary’s encouragement Diana began to caress Joy’s child, and the child instantly reached for her. At this moment, Mary saw her vision come into focus. Lynn, too, could see it. As Lynn took the picture, Mary felt a great sense of relief. If anything, she thought, now there would exist a photograph.

Some weeks later, Mary received a call from Lynn confirming her earlier sense of her friend’s conversion. Lynn had decided that she wanted to be baptized, and she wanted Mary to stand with her during the ceremony. “I can’t paint the Blessed Mother without becoming a Christian,” Lynn said. Lynn completed the painting called “The Blessing” on the following February 9. She remembers only holding the brush; painting was as fluid a process as receiving a blessing.

On that same evening, while Mary was sitting quietly in Lynn’s studio viewing the finished painting for the first time, her husband, attending what he had expected to be an ordinary board meeting in San Francisco, was receiving a singular professional blow. For it was on February 9 that Bill Agee was terminated as CEO, chairman, and president of Morrison Knudsen, a maneuver that brought his thirty- year career in business to a “crushing halt.”

Last Mother’s Day marked the beginning of the Nurturing Network’s tenth anniversary year, and Mary had worked for months planning a gathering that would honor the courage of the thousands of mothers the Network had assisted. The dinner was to take place on the holy ground of the Carmel Mission where Father Junipera Serra is buried. There would be thirty tables at dinner, each with a Network mother and her child as the guests of honor. It would be a chance for friends of the Network to finally meet in person the women they had helped to support. “The Blessing,” which hangs in Bishop Ryan’s private chapel at the mission, was to be unveiled immediately following the mass.

But Bill’s sudden dismissal from Morrison Knudsen only a few months before caused Mary to reconsider going ahead with the anniversary plans — a celebration, she thought, seemed inappropriate in light of her husband’s emotional condition. She was also concerned that, like herself, the Nurturing Network might be drawn into the media coverage surrounding the events that had transpired at MK, and that the organization’s reputation along with its work might be harmed.

Bishop Ryan did not want the Nurturing Network’s ten years of accomplishments to go unrecognized. He suggested a light supper with Mary’s family and the Network staff, and a mass in his private chapel. Lynn Lupetti and the Flynns were also invited. After mass, the small group had its first opportunity together to view what Lynn would later call her greatest work. No one but she, Mary, Bill, and the bishop had seen the painting, not even the Flynns. They had only seen photographs.

For both Bill and Mary, the painting, which was now set in a simple gold frame, had become a reminder of God’s loyal presence in their lives. Bill, still broken from the rupture in his professional life, saw in the painting a renewed hope that some meaning could come from all that he had been through. Looking on, he could not help but also see himself and his own family there in the arms of the Blessed Mother. The power of the painting is what Bishop Ryan would later call “the secret of humanity” and what, in part, would lead him to call the painting “a sacramental and a grace.”

For Mary, the painting had become an anchor during periods of unthinkable hurt. It was there, finally completed, the same night that Bill had lost his job, and it was here now in the bishop’s chapel during the painful aftermath of that event. As she stood gazing at the painting alongside Pam and Joy, Mary experienced a sense of peace, a sense of having accomplished what she felt had been required of her. The message implicit in the painted image was no longer dependent on her or on any dream. And what the painting gently invited those who stood before it to do, Mary understood, was what she herself had been invited to do when she began to experience the vision. It was what she had encouraged so many young mothers to do in the face of their unwanted pregnancies — to experience the blessing, to sense the Blessed Mother’s intimate presence, through the gift of their suffering.


  • Stacy Mattingly

    At the time this article was published, Stacy Mattingly was a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.

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