Artist hopes CHA's saints project promotes well-being of ministry staff

December 15, 2022


Early this year, when CHA's mission director invited emerging artist Lydia Wood to create portraits of seven saints for a CHA project highlighting Catholic health care's core commitments, Wood instantly intuited that the work would mesh with her own approach to art and her core beliefs.


And Wood, a pediatric nurse, says she felt her enthusiasm grow as CHA's Jill Fisk told her more about the project. The association planned to publish the portraits on "huddle cards" that people in Catholic health care could use to reconnect with the fullness and beauty of healing in Christ's name.

Intended as visual meditations, Wood's portraits are accompanied by prayers and reflections on how the featured saints' lives and works exemplify a central commitment of the health ministry. Wood says the commitments are tied to social justice themes that are a priority for her. The saints who CHA planned to feature intrigued Wood — she loved the diversity of their backgrounds.

In a self-portrait St. Louis artist Lydia Wood explores her experience of secondary trauma as a pediatric emergency room nurse.

Divine seeing
In painting the portraits for the association's "Inspired by the Saints: Contemplations for the Catholic Health Ministry" project, Wood says she was able to act on her desire to promote the well-being of vulnerable patients and of healers, especially those depleted by the demands of the pandemic.

Knowing this feeling of brokenness, Wood says she "really felt connected to these saints who were going through some tough stuff — it wasn't sugar coated."

CHA Mission Project Coordinator Karla Keppel was part of the team shaping the saints project. Keppel says she and her CHA colleagues wanted to create resources that could be used for a form of prayer called "visio divina," or divine seeing. In this practice, people contemplate art as they pray, reflect or meditate.

Keppel explains that the centering achieved in contemplative reflection can reconnect individuals to the sanctity of healing.

Wood painted this watercolor of her son. She says, "the light was perfect after he fell in a creek and was in my sweatshirt drying off." The image is not part of the Shot At Survival collection.

Artistic lineage
Wood's paternal grandmother was an artist, as was Wood's father, who made a living as an architect. When Wood was a child in the 1990s, she'd sit side by side with her father at her grandmother's easel. He'd draw a line down the center of a paper then demonstrate how to draw on one side of the line while his daughter followed his lead on the other.

Wood put her early love of art aside when she went to work as an English instructor in Thailand and later attended nursing school in St. Louis. Her first nursing job was in the emergency room at Mercy Hospital St. Louis in 2011. She specialized in pediatric emergency care. In 2017, she took a job in the emergency room at St. Louis Children's Hospital, then transferred a year and a half into the pandemic to the pediatric specialty hospital's heart center. She's a case manager there.

Wood says she turned to art in 2017 after her father died by suicide. She writes in her online biography, "I used paint to give voice to what I could not yet vocalize."

This watercolor portrait is part of artist Lydia Wood's collection, "A Shot At Survival: Watercolor Portraits Illustrating What It Takes to Survive Trauma in St. Louis," which is funded in part by a grant from St. Louis' Regional Arts Commission. This painting is of Darren Seals, who founded Sankofa Unity Center in St. Louis' Walnut Park. The center serves as a safe place for youth in the neighborhood to hang out.

The night she learned of her father's death, she found a measure of solace using watercolor paints to make a picture of a house being carried aloft by balloons. Her father had conjured this scene often in bedtime stories when she was a child.

She also has used her art in her social justice activism, she says. In early 2020 she won a grant to create a series of watercolor portraits of survivors of violence in St. Louis. Her goal in that project, titled "A Shot at Survival," was to show the impact of violence and its ripple affects on the psyche and what it takes to survive, endure and move forward.

Her first piece in that collection was a self-portrait that she used to explore the secondary trauma she experienced as a pediatric ER nurse. She continues to use art to work through the suffering she witnessed of sick children and their parents.

Wood adds that she uses painting to challenge herself and others to look inward and outside of themselves and consider new ideas and ways of processing their lives and world.

Also part of the Shot At Survival collection, this Wood watercolor is of Arnetta Burrell, who lost her son Sam to gun violence in 2018. Wood says Burrell "is amazing."

The lives of saints
Wood allows she was not very familiar with saints when she took on the CHA project. She thought all saints embodied sanctity, a trait which made them difficult for her to relate to.

She discovered as she researched each of her subjects that they were imperfect heroes — and she connected with their human frailty and missteps. She found several visual depictions of each saint and imagery from the time period in which they lived before making her sketches. Those references informed her approach to the portrait and the choice of symbols she sprinkled in the backgrounds of her 11-by-14-inch watercolor and relief prints on Aquaboard. The textured hardboard panel is similar to cold press paper in the way it absorbs and distributes watercolors.

CHA offers reflection resources based on the lives of seven saints

As part of the "Inspired by the Saints: Contemplations for the Catholic Health Ministry" project, CHA has created a set of "huddle cards" for use by individuals or prayer groups in Catholic health care facilities.

Seven of the 10 cards in each set feature prints of the original portraits of saints by St. Louis artist Lydia Wood. Each deck also includes a title card, an introduction card with a description of how to use the deck and a card with CHA's shared statement of identity. The cards are 8.5 inches by 11 inches.

Each of the saint cards contain a scripture passage; a biography of the saint and commentary on how their lives can inspire physical, emotional and spiritual healing; discussion questions and a prayer. Ministry staff and others can use the cards to facilitate a brief formative experience in a huddle, department meeting or for personal reflection.

The saints featured on the huddle cards and the core commitment of Catholic health care each represents are:

  • St. Elizabeth of Hungary, promote the common good
  • St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, serve as a ministry of the church
  • St. Josephine Bakhita, promote and defend human dignity
  • St. Katharine Drexel, steward resources
  • St. Martin de Porres, act on behalf of justice
  • St. Peregrine Laziosi, care for the poor and vulnerable
  • St. Mark Ji Tianxiang, attend to the whole person

As an example of the content of the prayer deck, the profile of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang introduces him as a 19th century physician in China who tended to all regardless of their ability to pay. He developed an opium addiction as he treated his own ailments. Though his community ostracized him because of his addiction, he remained devoted to God and is now the patron saint of people with substance dependency.

A reflection on his huddle card says in part that St. Mark Ji Tianxiang recognized that people are "more than a collection of symptoms to be treated … (we are) called to work together with God to achieve wholeness."

The cards can be ordered in print or electronic format at Also at that page is a podcast with details of how the project came about and about prayer using art.

Copyright © 2022 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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