The new stained glass window dedicated to Willa Cather that was unveiled in the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center.
Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas

Willa Cather Medallion Featured in O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library

Best known for her novels about frontier and pioneer experiences, Willa Cather has a new place at St. Thomas. A stained-glass medallion of the 20th-century author that was recently installed in St. Thomas’ O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library and is meant to inspire a new generation of learners.

“The themes of Willa Cather’s literature continue to capture our hearts and minds. Her writing pushes us to expand our horizons, whether it be enriching our knowledge of history, music, art or religion, and her stories are a gateway through which we can more thoughtfully consider our individual and collective human stories,” Ashley Olson, director of National Willa Cather Foundation, said in the dedication.

Cather, true to her pioneering spirit, wears a white shirt and necktie in the medallion, which was designed from a 1927 photo taken for Vanity Fair magazine.

Dan Gjelten, retired associate vice provost for university libraries, speaks during an event unveiling a new stained-glass window dedicated to Willa Cather in the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library on Dec. 7, 2021, in St. Paul. (Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas)

Cather’s medallion boosts the ranks of women depicted in the library’s stained-glass medallion collection. The 240 medallions honor bishops, saints, authors, literary characters and academic disciplines, most installed before the building’s opening in 1959 when St. Thomas was an all-male college.

“In 2010, someone from the English Department came to the library with an observation that there were not very many women or people of color represented,” Dan Gjelten, retired associate vice provost for university libraries, said. “We were happy to take on the project to correct that.”

Members of the English Department spearheaded efforts that added a medallion of Zora Neale Hurston, best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, then Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, before Professor Emeritus of English Bob Miller suggested Cather.

A nationally regarded Cather scholar, Miller helped inspire Gjelten’s appreciation for the My Ántonia author. Miller taught a class specifically on Cather at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at St. Thomas from 1991 until his retirement in 2006. During his master’s program, Gjelten took Miller’s class. Now, the two have jointly donated the author’s medallion.

“I liked (Cather), but after that class, I really loved her,” Gjelten said. “When he suggested (the window), I said heck yes, and in fact, I’ll pay for half of it.” 

At the dedication, Miller read an excerpt from Cather’s short story “Bohemian Girl.” Born in 1873, Cather penned 12 novels, along with short fiction and poetry. She died in New York City at age 73.

Cather’s medallion was designed and built by the same creators of the library’s entire collection, the Conrad Pickel Studio. The company is at work creating another medallion of an acclaimed female author for the university. The English Department recently completed its crowdfunding campaign for an Emily Dickinson medallion, with a dedication planned for April 2022.