Nathan M. Cochran, O.S.B., a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, teacher at Saint Vincent College, student mentor, admired colleague and champion of the arts, died Wednesday of an abdominal aneurysm. He was 57.
“Brother Nathan thought it was the arts that gave heart to any community,” said Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki, O.S.B. “He played an important role in the revival of the tradition of Catholic religious art, architecture and music.”
In 2001, Brother Nathan established the Nationwide Juried Catholic Arts Competition and Exhibition at the Saint Vincent Gallery in Unity, Westmoreland County, to encourage artists inspired by sacred subject matter. But he didn’t just champion traditional forms. “He provided opportunity for contemporary expression, even in the digital arts,” the archabbot said.
In 2010, Sister Wendy Beckett, noted British art historian whose programs ran on the BBC and PBS, was juror for the third Catholic Arts Competition. “Would that there were hundreds of Brother Nathans in all countries!” she exclaimed in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Brother Nathan was born in Marion, Ohio, studied vocal music at Bowling Green State University from 1975-77 and received a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from The Pontifical College Josephinum in 1980. He earned a master of divinity degree with honor from Saint Vincent Seminary in 1985 and began graduate studies in art history at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1988, he earned a master’s degree with honors in the theory, criticism and history of art, architecture and design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“When they sent him to New York to study, he was on cloud nine,” said Judith Hansen O’Toole, executive director andCEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. “He was a wonderful guy and he loved his work and he was such a lovely colleague.”
Brother Nathan entered the novitiate at Saint Vincent Archabbey in 1982 and made his simple profession of monastic vows in 1983 and solemn profession of vows in July 1986. He served the college in many capacities and at the time of his death was curator for the Saint Vincent Archabbey Art Collections, director of The Saint Vincent Gallery, college lecturer in fine arts, artistic director of the Saint Vincent Concert Series and chairman of the Department of Fine Arts.
“He totally invested himself in whatever task he was given. He was very humble in his demeanor and was a welcoming presence,” Archabbot Nowicki said.
As a novice, he asked to be caretaker for the art collection, which essentially was in storage. He curated an exhibition of select works displayed during a Founder’s Day celebration in 1986, and visitors were so impressed that it became permanent. He also began organizing temporary exhibitions.
Jordan Hainsey, assistant to the archabbot, was a studio arts student in 2007 when he applied to be a gallery guard. Brother Nathan gave him the opportunity to design an exhibition announcement, which led to his pursuit of a graphic design career. He continues to assist with exhibition research and organizing.
Brother Nathan had just returned from a two-week European trip that took him to sites significant to the life of archabbey founder Boniface Wimmer, a vacation that was more a pilgrimage, Mr. Hainsey said, alluding to Brother Nathan’s admiration for the founder. Archabbot Nowicki said Brother Nathan’s affinity aligned with the founder’s commitment to preserving the arts because “a monastery without the arts was a monastery without a soul.”
Brother Nathan enjoyed the social and physical sides of his exhibitions.
“He enjoyed sharing them with people, seeing them experiencing something different,” Mr. Hainsey said. “He loved hanging shows too, all the manual parts. There’s a quote from the Rule of Saint Benedict: ‘When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks.’ To me that kind of sums him up.”
Brother Nathan’s publications include “Gifts of a King: The Treasured Art of Saint Vincent Archabbey” and numerous exhibition catalogs, including “An American Abroad: Frank Duveneck’s European Years” for the Cincinnati Art Museum and, most recently, “Br. Cosmas Wolf, O.S.B.: Monk, Architect, Sculptor, Designer.”
Brother Norman W. Hipps, O.S.B., Saint Vincent College president, created the Projektenmacher Award in 2011 to recognize “people in our community who get things done, take initiative, go above and beyond what was expected,” he said. Brother Nathan was the first recipient of the Projektenmacher Award.
He is survived by a brother, Blaine A. Cochran, of Edison, Ohio. Viewing will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. today in the Elizabeth Roderick Center of Saint Vincent Seminary. A vigil service will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the archabbey basilica. A Mass will be celebrated by Archabbot Nowicki at 10 a.m. Saturday in the archabbey basilica. Interment will follow in Saint Vincent Cemetery.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Benedictine Health and Welfare Fund, Saint Vincent Archabbey, 300 Fraser Purchase Road, Latrobe, PA 15650.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.