Jan 052011

Sister Elizabeth Thoman, a member of the Davenport-based Congregation of the Humility of Mary, is the creator of Healing Petals: Images for Prayer & Reflection. She calls this project a ministry of spiritual photography, which she developed after going through cancer treatment in 2005. Her photographs of flowers in full bloom now hang on the wall of patients’ rooms at Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tenn.

By Barb Arland-Fye

Photographs of flowers in full splendor hang on the wall in nearly 300 patient rooms in Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tenn. They are the creation of Sister Elizabeth Thoman, a member of Davenport-based Congregation of the Humility of Mary, whose 2005 treatment for cancer inspired her to develop a ministry of spiritual photography.

The core of Healing Petals: Images for Prayer & Reflection is hundreds of color photographs of flowers. She believes the images, whether hung in a hospital, or set on a bed stand at home, can create a supportive environment for physical, emotional and spiritual healing.

Her ideas resonated with administrators at Saint Thomas Hospital, the first hospital in the nation to incorporate the Healing Petals program into its patient-care protocol. Each patient room displays a 20-by-24-inch framed photograph of a flower in full bloom, such as roses, lilies, dahlias, tulips or irises, the state flower of Tennessee. Patients receive a small brochure offering guidance on how to use the photograph as a path to prayer during their illness.

“At Saint Thomas we believe in healing the whole person — not just the body, but mind and spirit as well,” explained Jerry Kearney, the hospital’s vice president of mission. “We were delighted to discover Sr. Elizabeth’s talented work and to add Healing Petals photographs to our patient rooms.  We believe they will bring comfort not only to our patients, but their families and loved ones as well. These photographs fit nicely into our model of patient-centered care.” 

A bit of serendipity led the hospital to Healing Petals. A native of Nashville, Sr. Thoman was visiting  family when she connected with a friend who was working temporarily as a chaplain at Saint Thomas Hospital. He asked if he could show her flower photographs to fellow chaplains.

“I happened to walk into the pastoral care office and he was sharing those photos,” said Kearney, who asked to meet with the photographer.

He appreciated the story of Sr. Thoman’s struggle to deal with suffering and pain during treatment for breast cancer. “I was prepared to lose my energy, my appetite, even my hair,” she recalled. “But no one warned me how hard it might be to pray. Just when I needed to pray the most, it eluded me.”

Kearney believes hospital patients can relate to that time in the spiritual desert. “Many of our chaplains comment on the fact that the patients don’t feel like praying; they’re too consumed with their pain, their concern for the situation,” he said.

Sr. Thoman, a pioneer of media literacy education as well as an avid gardener before her illness, discovered her path to prayer through images in nature books. “I was overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s creation. My spirit came alive and I could pray again.” As she gained strength, she began to create her own images with a digital camera. Friends and CHM community members asked for copies of her photographs. Healing Petals became a full-time passion.

“Sr. Elizabeth continues to educate by sharing with others what she learned from her own experience with cancer,” said Sister Mary Rehmann, president of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary. “With help from ‘start up’ funds from the community, her ministry is now reaching people who need healing from many kinds of losses. In addition to hospital chaplains, I think that caregivers of all kinds will find the pictures, books, and prayer cards helpful in their ministries.”

About the project

Sister Elizabeth Thoman’s Saint Thomas Collection, a series of 24 flower photographs, was installed last fall in Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., in celebration of Patient Centered Care Awareness Month. Sr. Thoman also provided consultation on framing and matting for the project that cost about $50,000 and took about six months to complete. The photos hang in nearly 300 patient rooms.

Other hospitals, medical clinics, nursing homes and care facilities interested in installing Healing Petals: Images for Prayer & Reflection, may contact her through the Humility of Mary Center in Davenport at (563) 323-9466. In addition to photographs, Healing Petals images are available as greeting cards, calendars, photo books and framed art prints. Contact her through her website:

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