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In the midst of this busy health care laboratory are mysteries that go beyond science

Jim Carlson | OSF Healthcare

“Highly technical and challenging work is being done here, and these innovators are being called to remember that ‘with God all things are possible.'”

Click here to launch the slideshow

Virtual reality goggles are just part of daily life at the Advanced Imaging and Modeling laboratory at OSF HealthCare in Peoria, Illinois. But across the hall, healthcare workers are invited to use their eyes to contemplate greater mysteries. Mysteries of the Rosary, that is.

The carved and painted bas-relief panels of the Sorrowful Mysteries tell the story of Christ’s passion to engineers and simulation technicians and doctors as they hurry past. Rustic wooden frames contrast with the high-tech vibe of this 120,000-sq-ft health care innovations hub.

The sacred art beckons workers to slow down for a moment and remember why they do what they do, rewarding them with new perspectives. On careful examination of the second Sorrowful Mystery, for instance, an angel appears in the light accompanying the suffering Christ.

Faith and technology come together by design here. Taking time to pause and reflect “is extremely important because this is our higher calling–the imitation of Christ,” says Sister Agnes Joseph Williams, O.S.F., board member of OSF HealthCare. “In the midst of the highly technical and challenging work being done, we must remember that ‘with God all things are possible,’” she says.

A reminder of God’s higher power gives perspective even as revolutionary things are done here, things such as discovering the way to print a 3-D model of a heart to aid surgical planning, or developing novel simulators to enable medical residents to practice a difficult procedure, or consulting via telehealth with a patient in an understaffed clinic in a rural corner of the state.

In this place that feels like a Silicon Valley start-up, it could be easy to be distracted by a new technology, a new algorithm, and to focus solely on the technical portion of the work. Discovering new ways to look at healthcare challenges is what the OSF Innovation team is all about, and they are doing it through the lens of a very old tradition.

Rosary as a reminder of the Sisters’ mission

The human touch is obvious in the strokes of brush and blade that bring out the details of the figures of Jesus and Mary in the panels. Classically trained artist Chris Cismesia, who says he prayed often while working on the panels, strove “to illustrate, in a close up and intimate way, each Mystery.”

Similarly, the human touch is at the heart of patient care at the Catholic hospital system. The Rosary panels are “a daily reminder of our mission, our foundation,” says Rob Jennetten, director of innovation partnerships. He’s referring to the mission of the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, who were inspired by the example of their patron, St. Francis of Assisi, “to serve with the greatest care and love in a community that celebrates the Gift of Life” when they started tending the sick in a three-story house in Peoria in the fall of 1876. That same mission continues to guide Jennetten and his 19,000 colleagues, called “Mission Partners,” in their work across OSF HealthCare.

Certainly the Rosary is a particularly Catholic tradition of prayer, and certainly many Mission Partners are not Catholic. Other scriptural and inspirational messages besides the Rosary panels adorn the spaces where Mission Partners meet and work as well. But Sister Judith Ann Duvall, O.S.F., chairperson of the board and major superior of the religious order, points out that “the mysteries in the lives of Jesus and Mary belong to the whole world and can enrich the lives of all Christians.”

Recognizing the religious diversity of the workforce, Sister Agnes Joseph has composed summaries and reflections for each panel to make them accessible to people of all faiths. Pediatric cardiologist Dr. Matthew Bramlet says he is inspired by The Agony in the Garden and its companion prompt: When I am in difficulties, how often do I turn to God in prayer? 

More challenging for Bramlet is the reflection on the last Joyful Mystery, The Finding of Jesus in the Temple, which asks: Am I willing to listen to the thoughts and opinions of others even though I may disagree with them or have more experience than they do? “That’s much harder,” Bramlet admits.

Art of collaboration

Teamwork was designed right into the OSF Innovation space—with its open, shared work pods, glass walls, and even a coffee shop to encourage conversation. That spirit of collaboration was likewise a hallmark of the creation of the Rosary panels. Cismesia was helped by lifelong friends, renowned woodworker Steve Shannon and his wife Lisa. The trio developed a synergistic approach, starting appropriately with the Annunciation as a test panel.

“The drawings are Chris’ interpretation and are original images,” says Shannon. After the sketches were done, Lisa’s role was to refine the “message” and feeling conveyed in the panels’ compositions from a liturgical perspective. “We never really disagreed but did a lot of brainstorming,” Shannon says of the process.

Once Sister Agnes Joseph approved all the drawings, Shannon carved away at Cismesia’s sketches using hand and air compression tools. Cismesia completed the final detail carving and applied thin layers of egg tempera and oil. It was a labor of love that took about two and half years from start to finish.

“It was like a conversation, a dialogue, always questioning and soul searching. We spent a lot of time just looking and listening to each other’s concerns and evaluating the progress, mostly in Steve’s workshop or at his kitchen table,” says Cismesia.

Working on the panels fostered spiritual growth in the artistic team. “I feel like I have a deeper meaning of the suffering of Christ after working so closely with the intricate features of the panels. There is also a great feeling of obligation to get the interpretation right … this is Jesus!” says Shannon.

Not only is the resulting Rosary panel collection a wonderful addition to the OSF Innovation space, but it also represents an important contribution to art of its kind—perhaps an innovation in and of itself. While artists through the ages have creatively imagined individual scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary, it is difficult to find all of them envisioned in a unified series. Perhaps the best-known depiction of the Mysteries of the Rosary all together in art is this 15th century Netherlandish altarpiece on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Gift of creativity

In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote about artistic creativity and a calling to share this gift: “Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation … feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole.”

The same could be said for the creative engineers and problem solvers in Peoria who proudly call themselves “Innovators for Life.”

“The religious art provides that ultimate context in which we pray all who serve in this space understand and engage the work entrusted to them,” says Sister Judith Ann. “We want them to realize that it is God Who called them to creatively enable and advance His love and care for His people and He will sustain them in this service of human life.”


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