Bringing the saints’ lives to life

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, saints on campuses have a lot to say these days.

Catholic universities and colleges dotting the United States consistently express their charisms and the unique perspectives of their saintly founders through art.

Religious orders are as varied as the men and women who founded them. Some came to the United States in the 1800s to educate American Indian girls; others began in Europe in medieval times. Whatever their story, the orders’ charisms are kept vivid today through paintings, statues, bas-reliefs and even jewelry.

Sisters of the Holy Cross

Artistically speaking, Notre Dame, Ind., usually is associated with “Touchdown Jesus” and the Golden Dome. But we can’t overlook St. Mary’s College, one of the oldest Catholic colleges for women, which is located across the street from the University of Notre Dame. St. Mary’s College got its start in 1844, when four Sisters of the Holy Cross traveled to the United States to teach local girls (especially Potawatomi Indian girls) in a small town in Michigan near the Indiana border.

According to Adaline Cashore, director of donor relations, the sisters also were to assist the Holy Cross priests who established a boys’ school (now Notre Dame). The school moved to Indiana in 1855. 

“In 1844, the clear need, expressed by the bishop in Indiana, was education,” Holy Cross Sister Veronique Wiedower, vice president for mission, told Our Sunday Visitor. “The charism of the Sisters of the Holy Cross is to read the signs of the times and to respond to needs.”

Many saints and religious symbols make an appearance across the school, but two that stand out are no surprise: the cross and the Virgin Mary.

“The image of the cross is of particular importance and is represented in art in various ways throughout the campus, most recently in the visual display of paintings in Spes Unica Hall and the naming of the building itself,” Sister Veronique said. 

The hall’s name is taken from the motto of Holy Cross: Ave Crux, Spes Unica (“Hail Holy Cross, our one hope!”).

 “On the college’s crest, the French cross is prominent, and students find great identification with [it] as iconic of the college,” Sister Veronique said. Cashore added that the class ring includes the French cross.

In addition, “artwork inside buildings and on the facade of buildings by student artists and others point to our Catholic heritage and especially to our devotion to Mary,” Sister Veronique said. This includes a bas relief that Cashore calls “a more modern image of Mary that’s related to today.”

Located in the student center atrium, the bas relief and water wall was commissioned to depict “Our Lady of Wisdom” as a young girl, which Mary would have been at the time of the Annunciation.


St. Francis of Assisi, the humble lover of mankind and God’s creation, is perhaps the most iconic of all saints.

Born in 1181 in modern-day Italy, Francis was the spoiled son of a rich merchant. He was happy-go-lucky and popular with his peers, frittering money away while partying.

He yearned for adventure and set off to become a knight. After two unsuccessful attempts to distinguish himself (and some time as a prisoner of war), Francis heard the call of God to rebuild his Church. He turned his life around, rejected wealth and pleasure, and went on to found an order that did indeed “rebuild” his Church. 

“Our unique charism in the Franciscan family is conversion (in Greek, metonoia),” said Father Richard Davis, minister provincial of the Third Order Regular Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Loretto, Pa. “And ongoing conversion is unique to our spirituality.” 

Two campuses, one in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio, were founded by the Third Order Regular: St. Francis University in Loretto in 1847 by six Franciscan brothers from Ireland, and Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), which branched off in 1946. 

Benedict statue
St. Benedict statue near the Benedictine College student center. Courtesy of Benedictine College

“When one comes on to either of the campuses, St. Francis or Franciscan, you know you are in a ‘sacred space,’ which speaks of the reverence for life which is part of our Franciscan charism,” Father Davis told OSV. 

In Steubenville, two St. Francis statues in particular hold special meaning.

“The image of Francis beholding the Crucified is a very Franciscan image, but as I worked with the sculptor, I asked him to change a few parts of the traditional image,” Father Davis said.  

The hand of St. Francis is over the heart of Jesus, as they “are looking intimately into each others’ gaze, showing that deep, loving relationship,” he said.

The second statue stands outside Christ the King Chapel and is the traditional image of St. Francis. Elevated amid a flower garden, it’s not unusual to see rabbits, sparrows and squirrels bustling about the statue in a humorous live depiction of the saint’s love for animals.

The statue is probably in more family snapshots than your photogenic grandmother; St. Francis is a popular addition when families come to visit.


St. Benedict and his sister, St. Scholastica, lived in sixth-century Italy. Known as the “Father of Western Monasticism,” St. Benedict established what is referred to as “The Rule.”

“St. Benedict founded, in his own words, ‘a school of the Lord’s service’ for his monks and nuns — and they attempt to follow his example as educators,” said Father Blaine Schultz, a monk of St. Benedict’s Abbey, one of the two sponsoring institutions of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. The college formed in 1971, when an all-male school and an all-female school merged.

Father Schultz said three frescoes by French painter Jean Charlot grace the abbey’s church, the largest of them, portraying the twin saints standing under a crucifix, is placed in the upper church. Another shows St. Joseph teaching carpentry to the boy Jesus. And a fun fact — did you know that Jesus was left-handed? Well, maybe not, but at least in this fresco he is. 

“Each has a hammer in his hand. Joseph holds his in his right hand; his foster son holds his, a smaller version of his father’s, in his left hand,” said Father Schultz. “The artist ...  made the boy Jesus a lefty ... for ‘compositional balance’ in that the two hammers are perfectly lined up, one above the other.” 


Jesuit chair
Students sit in a massive chair, one of the reflection sites at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo. Courtesy of Rockhurst University

After his leg was broken and healed improperly, St. Ignatius of Loyola ordered doctors to saw off a knob of bone and to stretch out his limb to avoid an unequal gait.

His drastic measures, while in vain, set the stage for his life’s work. While recovering, he read two books: one on Christ and one on saints. He underwent a conversion, wrote the “Spiritual Exercises” and established the Society of Jesus in 1540.

There are 28 Jesuit universities and colleges in the United States today, spanning from California to New York.

Katherine Frohoff, director of public relations at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., said the school is “in the process of creating reflection sites on campus to reflect our six core values,” including a statue of St. Ignatius Loyola at the Cardoner River to illustrate “reflection and discernment.”

Frohoff mentioned two reflection sites to aid in “finding God in all things” — one is a stone labyrinth and the other is a little quirkier.

“A massive blue Adirondack chair ... sits just outside a residence hall. The chair picks up on our tradition of having wooden Adirondack chairs in other places of relaxation and meditation on campus, but gives it a new twist,” she said. “It might suggest that finding God in all things includes humor.” 

Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland.