Impact of the ‘Mother of Life’: Nationally acclaimed artist visits Omaha to receive award
March 6, 2020
Art with a mission: ‘Mother of Life’ boosts pro-life efforts
“Mother of Life” moves people.
“The second I saw it I was mesmerized,” said Steve Gignac of the digital image painted by North Dakota artist Nellie Edwards. His wife Carol had given him a copy after it appeared on the cover of the Knights of Columbus magazine, Columbia. He decided to share it with others.
Gignac, a member of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Bristol, Connecticut, gave it to a friend’s sister whose son was dying of a brain tumor. Later she told him they had prayed with the image every night before his death.
He gave it to a woman who was struggling after a miscarriage. She was moved to tears. Later she said she had just been praying to Our Lady of Guadalupe for help with the loss.
“To see the glowing baby Jesus inside her womb – it has a strong effect on people,” said Gignac. “You see the look on people’s faces when they see the image – comfort and awe. It looks like they are in the presence of something powerful.”
Edwards, a self-taught artist, believes these responses are the result of graces received from contemplating the image. These graces “go straight to the heart … to convey the love of our Lord,” she said.
Pat Castle, founder of the Omaha-based pro-life apostolate LIFE Runners, said the image has changed the minds of mothers considering abortion to choose life.
The image’s powerful impact was the reason Edwards was honored with LIFE Runners’ first Lifetime Impact Award, he said. Edwards received it at the LIFE Runners All in Christ for Pro-Life Banquet Feb. 20 at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Omaha.
The image might never have been painted, though, had Edwards not been open to what she believes was divine inspiration.
Although several people had suggested she paint the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, it “was totally unthinkable for me,” said Edwards, a member of St. Leo the Great Parish in Minot, North Dakota.
As a youth, she had been taught by sisters of the Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary, who instilled in her a special reverence for the image of Mary that God imprinted on St. Juan Diego’s tilma. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything with what heaven had given. I thought it would be so irreverent,” she said.
But on that day in 2011 when she began painting an image of Mary in white with an unborn baby, she sensed she might be wrong.
“I literally looked up and said, ‘Lord, is this you?’ I looked at the image I was painting and saw her side profile and the sash, an Aztec symbol for being with child, and prayed,” said Edwards. “I realized I was receiving a divine nudging … this was Our Lady of Guadalupe.”
That kind of nudging had happened before, said Edwards. She said she has learned to prayerfully consider and further discern these feelings, and when appropriate, follow where God appeared to be leading. But “to say I was stunned is an understatement,” she said, reflecting on the moment.
Then began the hard work of bringing the image to fruition. It took months “to capture her look, expression, posture, room – her sanctuary,” said Edwards. “And she’s the tabernacle – she’s kneeling in adoration of her unborn Savior.”
ADVOCATE FOR LIFE
Edwards is a longtime pro-life advocate. As a newlywed she had read “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), St. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical underscoring the need for every marital act to be open to new life, and later “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”), St. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the inviolability and value of human life. She discerned she needed to “tell everyone that children are a blessing and that God faithfully provides.”
She has been a sidewalk counselor and fought in courtrooms to defend First Amendment rights to share pro-life materials outside abortion clinics. Her first sidewalk encounter, on the Feast of the Assumption in 1983, led a mother to choose life and solidified Edwards’ dedication to compassionately share the pro-life message.
Edwards and her late husband Christopher raised eight children. The family moved from Washington State to North Dakota in 1996. He died from complications of cancer in August 2012.
In 1997 the couple founded Mother of Eight Designs, a family business that sold custom sculpted, cold-cast ornaments and keepsake products to specialty gift shops across the country. Besides providing the family’s income, it allowed them to homeschool all their children. The children, all of whom participated in the business, also learned valuable business principles, Edwards said.
In 2007 Edwards’ family gave her a digital tablet complete with painting software offering endless colors and virtual brushes. She had experienced a lifelong desire to take painting lessons, but never pursued it. Despite the fact she had no formal art training, she plunged right in.
Soon after “I had this notion that I should paint a portrait of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha,” she said. “I waved it off, but it kept coming back. Finally, I said ‘OK, if it’s from the Lord, it will look like someone with some training was doing it.’”
She said she was surprised the quality of the image that emerged. “God doesn’t always call the equipped, but he equips the called,” she said. “The Lord let me skip” the professional training.
Regular prayer time, daily Mass and two hours of eucharistic adoration weekly give her opportunities to discern God’s will for her, she added, which she applies to her painting and other areas of her life.
She and her husband decided to sell the business in 2008, allowing her to devote more time to her painting. They trusted God would do the rest. “I think it is important that you obey no matter what. Incredible graces come,” she said.
The national Tekakwitha Conference, a Catholic organization supporting Christian ministry among Native Americans, approved the image of Blessed Kateri upon its completion and asked for prints for their annual conference.
Prints of both the Blessed Kateri and “Mother of Life” images were displayed at the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 2012. There an editor from Columbia saw them. He asked to use the Blessed Kateri image for the magazine’s cover, which marked her canonization in October 2012. Later he asked to use “Mother of Life” for the December 2012 issue.
“That really accelerated things,” said Edwards. Social media exploded with the image and also the stories of lives impacted by it.
After seeing the image, a woman contacted Edwards via private message. Her daughter was five months pregnant and scheduled for an abortion. Edwards sent her a print for her daughter. She later told Edwards her daughter cancelled the abortion after seeing the image.
A few months later, the new grandmother sent another message: “I wanted to share these pictures with you (of mother and newborn) and tell you again how grateful I am for your generous and kind heart. Your prayers and beautiful talent had a profound impact on us.”
LIFE RUNNERS EFFECT
The image made its way to Castle when LIFE Runners was primarily a pro-life running team. He asked Edwards if LIFE Runners could use the image on prayer cards and banners.
Castle, a member of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion and St. Matthew the Evangelist in Bellevue, said “Mother of Life” helped his apostolate refocus its mission from mainly participating in races to sharing the pro-life message. He said the image spoke to them because it shows Mary living the apostolate’s motto, “All in Christ for Pro-Life!”
For the same reasons, Castle credits “Mother of Life” with growing the organization’s membership from 170 members in 2011 to 491 in 2012 and now more than 14,450 registered LIFE Runners in more than 2,533 cities in 39 countries.
Edwards said if her art only touches one mother it would be worth it, “but I know Our Lady is using it in so many places.”
The “Mother of Life” image is increasingly being used on prayer cards: 100,000 of them to be distributed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ new initiative, “Walking with Moms in Need”; others being circulated by the North Dakota Knights of Columbus to convey the importance of pro-life issues with plans to distribute the cards nationally before the November elections; and still others for distribution by LIFE Runners to new members and during hundreds of local, national and international races.
Edwards sees her art as helping to build a culture of life in concrete ways.
“It’s art with a mission,” she said. “I’m forever grateful that I’m a bristle on Our Lady’s brush.”