Sister Irene Nowell, OSB
Old Testament Scholar

Sister Irene Nowell, OSB is a Benedictine of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas with a background in Scripture. Sister Irene holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Mount St. Scholastica College, a master’s degree in theology from Saint John’s University, a master’s degree in German from Catholic University, and a doctorate in biblical studies from Catholic University. She is a former adjunct professor of Saint John's University School of Theology, teaching Scripture both in the classroom and on the web and is a past president of the Catholic Biblical Association. Sister Irene has taught at Mount St. Scholastica College/Benedictine College for twenty years, teaching German, English, and mostly Scripture.

She has written several books, Sing a New Song:  The Responsorial Psalm in the Sunday Liturgy, Women in the Old Testament, and Numbers (The Liturgical Press), and 101 Questions and Answers on Angels and Devils (Paulist Press).  Her most recent books are Pleading, Cursing, Praising:  Conversing with God through the Psalms, a commentary on Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther (Liturgical Press), and Jonah, Tobit, Judith (Liturgical Press).  She is currently an editor for Give Us This Day (August 2011 – present), was formerly on the editorial board of The Bible Today (1986-1999, 2004 – 2015) and also writes regularly for other biblical and liturgical periodicals.  Her upcoming book from Liturgical Press features biblical wisdom literature and her commentary on Esther for The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. 

Interview with Sister Irene Nowell


How did you get involved with the Committee on Illumination and Text?

Getting involved with the CIT was a real gift to me.  It so happened that I was teaching at St. John’s during the spring semester of 2000 and 2001.  That was exactly when the CIT needed an Old Testament person.  I was delighted to be asked.


How did you prepare for a CIT meeting?

I prepared for the initial meetings by studying the biblical text.   For later meetings when we had the sketches, I again went back to the biblical text to be sure that the illumination was true to the text.  Then I tried to pay attention to what surprised me in the sketches—because there was always something that surprised me.


Describe a typical CIT meeting.

This is the only committee I have ever been on that I looked forward to going to the meetings.  The basic process was this:  If the subject for the illumination was an Old Testament reading, I began with a simple exegesis of the text.  If it was a New Testament reading, Michael Patella gave an exegesis of the text.  Then everyone chimed in with insights from their particular areas of expertise—the artists, the theologians, the Scripture folks.  It was a kind of organized chaos and truly a lot of fun.  I was always surprised by the insights of the artists, since I am mostly a word person.


How did your background in theology impact your perceptions?

My background in Scripture, especially Old Testament, was absolutely essential.  I had the responsibility of providing the initial interpretation of the text.


Tell us about your personal contribution to the committee.

My main contribution was as the Old Testament scholar.  I think the greatest accomplishment had to do with the Psalms volume.  We had a hard time deciding how to approach the task of “illuminating” the Psalms.  Finally I put together an essay on the division of the Book of Psalms into five books and the characteristics of each book.  That is what Donald picked up on and did a brilliant job of illuminating.


You have a bachelor’s degree in music. Tell us more about your work on the Psalms volume.

My background in music gave me my initial love of the Psalms, which has grown ever greater through my monastic life.  So I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to understand the psalms and to appreciate their wisdom and beauty.  I don’t know that there was a direct connection of my musical background to the illuminations, but Donald certainly picked up on the chant in the Psalms illumination.  The voice prints of the St. John’s monks singing the psalms, which appear throughout the Psalms book were a surprise to me, but I love the idea.  That was Donald’s genius.


Was it difficult to get along considering the committee was a broad group with various specializations and personalities?

Working with this committee was a true joy for me.  We didn’t always agree, but I never sensed anything but willingness to listen to each other and to appreciate each other’s insights.  Sometimes our meetings were a bit rowdy and we were all talking at once.  But I always left feeling good about everyone’s insights and about being listened to with generosity.  It was indeed an amazing committee.


Why did our team experience so much success with this project?

Much credit should go to St. John’s Abbey and University.  They were fully committed from the beginning. Abbot John Klassen was an active supporter as was Brother Dietrich Reinhart.  The presence of committed team members also helped greatly.  We stayed together through almost all of the project. I also want to commend Donald Jackson’s wife Mabel who kept reminding both Donald and the team that we were really all committed to the same thing.   She was an amazing supporter.


What did you learn from working on the CIT and for The Saint John's Bible?

I loved the project.  I still feel greatly privileged for being able to be a part of this amazing work.  I am so proud of it.  What did I learn?  Well, for one thing I learned that people of different areas of expertise can get along amazingly well if we are committed to the success of the same project.  I learned more about illuminations and art and ways to interpret Scripture than I could have ever expected.  I enjoyed the whole thing!


Are there any stories you would like to share?

This is a fun interpretation that I have used over and over.  Is it true?  I don’t know.  But if you look at the Pentecost illumination you will see a small group of figures standing up on the hill to the right.  I think that is the CIT.  The inspiration for the major part of the illumination was a significant football game at St. John’s.  We on the CIT walked over to see part of the game.  I am sure that we are the ones standing at a distance.  So if anyone asks if the CIT is represented anywhere in the illuminations, I think the answer is yes!  (I am sure not everyone agrees with me!)