December 12, 2005 12:00 AM
For Julie Ann Brown, being legally blind helped inspire a
passion that has taken her throughout the streets of Europe,
sent her scouring through antique stores, and negotiating
deals at auctions.
Her passion has also landed her in deep debt three
Ms. Brown is a woman on a mission. Her goal is to preserve
and protect holy cards crafted throughout the centuries.
Initially, they were used mostly by illiterate Catholics to
follow church services with pictures since they couldn't
For Ms. Brown, a Santa Barbara City College marketing
professor, the pictures proved to be an essential window into
the mystic side of Catholicism, particularly since her poor
eyesight as a child made it so hard to read words. "I lived in
the spiritual world," she says. "Growing up, I almost had no
With about 40,000 of the pocket-sized cards tucked beneath
plastic covers and stacked in boxes in her garage, Ms. Brown
has amassed one of the world's most extensive collections. She
has filed many of them, available for downloading, on her Web
The Vatican even requested one of her holy cards of St.
Cornelius for a celebration of his feast day four years ago.
Actress Sophia Loren used a number of the images for a series
her Canadian production company was doing on the lives of the
saints. And an artist in Louisiana displayed her images after
being requested to construct the Stations of the Cross.
"That's what I love about this," she said. "They can be
used by anyone, from the little entrepreneur to the
She has collected some of the rarest holy cards, including
one with a bleeding portrait of Jesus that was hand-carved
with tiny knives by Bavarian nuns in the 16th or 17th century.
It took them three years to make, probably because paper was
so expensive then and they didn't want to make a mistake, Ms.
The price of the card today: $1,200.
"I know, I know," she laughed when asked about the cost.
"Some people think I'm crazy."
Even though she's a marketing professor, she admits that
with regard to this hobby, "I've got to be the worst
businesswoman in the world." Her debt for trips and the cost
of cards has exceeded more than $30,000 three times.
"My goal is to get the entire collection up on the Web
before I die," she said. "I want to preserve this art, this
history, for future generations."
The advent of the printing press in the 15th century
allowed for the cards to be made more easily, but it wasn't
until the 19th century that they were used by the laity to
follow services and trade on holy days.
Ms. Brown has dozens of them: images of Mary, of Jesus and
of angels (Christmas is always a popular time for downloading
angels, she says). She has most of the popular saints -- among
them St. Francis, surrounded by birds and animals -- and the
not-so-famous such as St. Sofia, a Roman widow who was
tortured and beheaded.
Like Major League Baseball players, most of the thousands
of Catholic saints have cards -- cards for the newer saints
are even called "rookie" cards. Each card carries some kind of
story about courage or strength or faith, but it's the images
-- the things that can't be put into words -- that move Ms.
"They raise our minds into a different realm," she
Ms. Brown -- a self-proclaimed proud Catholic -- has earned
a bit of publicity with her unusual hobby. She was invited to
contribute to a book called "I Like Being Catholic" by Michael
Leach and Therese J. Borchard, which includes short stories
and quotations from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Nicole
Kidman and William F. Buckley.
The church, she says, has gotten a bad rap of late but has
a beautiful history and mystic side that often goes unnoticed.
It will always have a special place for her, particularly
because it was the nuns in her Catholic school who finally
convinced her parents that she needed glasses.
In the interim, she said, her intuitive senses developed to
the point that she could recognize and feel the deep spiritual
meanings and history behind the saints.
"It has been a gift," she said.