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HOLY MISSION




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 times.

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 read.

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 choice."

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 site at

www.holycards.com.

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 Vatican."

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. Brown said.

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. Brown.

"They raise our minds into a different realm," she says.

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.

e-mail: mevans@newspress.com