The Loss of Holy Cards, or the Disappearance of a Distinctive Material Culture of Memory

A couple of years ago, I lost a cherished little book of prayers that had accompanied me on my travels for decades.

Initially, the loss did not seem that significant.  The little book had become quite worn, and by now I had both an iPhone and an iPad that accompanied my travels and sustained my prayer life while I traveled, through a variety of liturgical Apps and websites.

Some months after the loss of my prayer-book, however, I realized what I had truly lost: not so much a little book of texts, but rather a whole distinctive material culture of memory.  This material culture lived in my prayer-book in the form of holy cards, pictures, hand-written Scripture verses, and yes, some photos and pressed flowers, by which I was able to map not only my life’s journeys, but also the lives of those I continued to pray for, and the images of saints I had a particular devotion to.  There were also dates scribbled into the margins that reminded me of when a certain psalm had spoken to me very deeply or when a specific heart-wrenching prayer of mine had actually been answered.  There was the prayer card from the funeral of a friend who had committed suicide in her twenties.  There was the holy card with a photo of Thérèse de Lisieux already close to death, and one of her startling meditations on her own calling to love.  There was dried lavender from the monastery of Hildegard of Bingen.  There were even holy cards I had inherited from my mother’s prayer-book, some for people I never heard of.  All this was lost, when I lost my little prayer-book.

What I have been wondering about since I realized what I had lost is a broader issue however, namely that I have seen an analogous loss sweep over much of Catholic life in the last few decades in the cultural context in which I live.  And I cannot help but wonder what the loss of this material culture of memory means.



  1. Maybe I am in the minority, but I still have and cherish my holy cards. They are often from a funeral or special occasion of a loved one. I kept them for the pictures, but they are also remembrances of people and events. I have them from when I was a kid.

    Gosh, and if I could only tell you the number of people I’ve encountered in parishes whose Bibles are crammed with special bookmarks and little notes. I don’t tend to stuff books, but that’s a personal preference. I think devout “keepers” are out there… although in terms of taste, it’s all over the map. Judging from the business of religious articles stores and online emporiums, there are a lot of devotional items selling merrily; Precious Moments, kneeling Santas, Divine Mercy key chains, mugs with “Footprints” and similar. Wouldn’t be my taste, but it’s material culture going strong. I may have every recording of Arvo Part, another person has every recording of David Haas, but we’re both amassing traces… And there are stories to go along with those traces.

    Just one story about holy cards: When I worked with the RCIA for the Archdiocese of New York, I decided to give out assorted holy cards (the “icon collection”– bright colors, gold edges) printed up with the date, to those who came to the Rite of Election, as hundreds of catechumens and candidates and their sponsors and godparents celebrated at the cathedral. I remember my secretary took one and kept it on her desk–the darkest-toned face of Christ (she was African-American). I think our devotional object choices project outward from a sense of the holy anchored in ourselves, so it would indeed be sad if those tokens disappeared. Yet it’s also possible to find them in new places.

    The lost prayer book is a real loss… I hope you get another! Apps just don’t take our fingerprints as well or wear as well over time.

  2. I also love holy cards. I have a number that I took as momentos from my trip to Rome. They are easy to take when I travel and I need to set up a small prayer space wherever I happen to be. Moreover, I inherited a number of (mostly religious) books from my (still living) grandmother. I found a few cards in them from my great grandmother’s funeral, who died when I was quite young. My memories of her are faint but quit warm. I also inherited a rosary of hers. My grandfather died recently, and I keep the card from his funeral as well. It’s a way of keeping these two people with me.

    I do hope the practice continues.

  3. The practice definitely continues. Holy cards trade very well on ebay. Sacerdote often offers elegant holy cards, some with third class relics. I would do so too but I can’t bear to part with them. Some have the most interesting memories connected with them.

    Every antique dealer in Rome has plastic books full of all manner of them. The churches of the city still give them out, but the quality does not equal that of former years.

    1. @Brian Duffy – comment #3:
      I the parish where I grew up, in Germany, we received a holy card every year when we made an “Easter Communion,” i.e. received the Eucharist during Eastertime. The cards were beautiful, usually illustrated from some Medieval manuscript, and stamped with the word “Osterkommunion” and the year.

  4. In a few parishes I served, the DRE and I produced trading/holy cards for young people. They were seasonal: Advent and Lent, mainly. Occasionally something for the whole parish catechesis.

    At the student center, we produce holy cards for the works of art we’ve commissioned (a processional crucifix and a statue of our patron, most recently) and I regularly re-stock the table, shrine, and other places around the church where we offer them.

    Young people, even the most-steeped in e-prayer resources, like the tangibility of a card.

    One problem I find as I peruse catalogues is the sappiness of the mass-produced items. Not all, but many. I’m glad to be in a parish that produces its own. It’s not terribly costly to have a printer run a thousand or two, and they will be taken home.

    My daughter attended an NCYC in 2011 and the youth were given cards of bishops. My wife reported that the one depicting the Kansas City-St Joseph ordinary was crumpled at the bottom of a trash container she was emptying one day. Keep it saintly. Or biblical.

  5. Todd ==
    It’s not just the contemporary cards that are sappy. Lordy, how I hated those blonde, misty-eyed Marys in white dresses and light blue veils.

    There are no more personal prayer books, and what a terrible, terrible loss. Holy cards are a tradition that should be maintained, though I don’t see how to relate them to the digital generation. Should kids be encouraged to make their own digital ones and send them out on Facebook? Even if they could make them, they couldn’t bring them to Mass unless they could print them out. And what would they do with them in church? Put them in the missals?

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #6:
      I’m not sure what you mean by “personal prayer books.” Loyola Press has a few published options that are superior to anything else I’ve seen anywhere. There are annual publications that lean more heavily to the Lectionary. Many of the college students I know use Shorter Christian Prayer. I see a lot of Bibles too, some number in zip cases. It’s a partial replacement, not a total loss.

  6. ” And what would they do with them in church? Put them in the missals?” – perhaps write an App for that: click “In church”, the phone is set to silent, two or three of the “cards” (at random or keyed by the date) are displayed for ten seconds or so, as if they had turned up while flipping pages in a book, and then the screen turns off….

  7. Todd —

    By “personal prayer books” I meant the missals which we chose ourselves and used at Mass and for other prayer-times. Those were the books we kept the holy cards in, and they were all the more personal because of it.

    These days some might object to the fact that they were so individualized, and, therefore, disruptive of the idea of Mass as a communal event — better to have everyone praying from the same page of the same book. But I believe that the Lord has so much variety in the pews because He *wants* variety in the pews, on condition, of course, that we individually intend our prayers and actions as part of a whole, mysteriously unified event.

    The Mass is an artwork composed of different parts and differing elements, and that’s why the holy cards are missed: they added to the whole.

    The problem now, I suppose, is that individuals don’t want to buy the whole series of books that are necessary for the new liturgy because they’re expensive, and who knows when a new liturgy will be imposed? But it was quite conducive to prayer to have my own beautiful missal back in the day, even though, being fresh out of college when I bought it, I had to sacrifice a bit to be able to afford it.

    People used to keep those missals for a lifetime. Of course, they were beautifully made books meant to last. I have a collection of prayer books from prior generations, they last so long. Some of them are works of art, which is what they should be. The new ones in my parish church must weigh four and a half pounds, have stiff covers with corners that jab, are made of stiff, dead-white paper, and are ridiculously organized. (Not to mention that my arthritic hands find it literally painful to hold them.) End of rant.

  8. P. S. I have my Irish great-grandmother’s catechism which is in Gaelic. I can’t read it, of course, but I’ve always thought it was a relic to be cherished, and my father left it to me in his will. I keep it now in my bank box. It’s not a beautiful book, but the paper is good, and when the cover began to wear out my great-grandmother sewed on some fabric to preserve it. OK, so that book is family history, but it’s also history of the Faith, as are the people remembered in all the holy cards in all the old missals.

    These things are important, not the least because they establish a *personal* connection within the larger Church. The Church is, indeed, a web of all these individual connections between people and things and actions.

  9. Like Teresa I am heavily invested in computers both for audio (e.g. Divine and visual (e.g. using downloaded wall papers from National Geographic as “icons” ) for my prayer. However, I also produce my own unique material prayer books.

    My standard form for a prayer book is a ½ inch durable Avery binder which can contain up to 120 sheets i.e. 240 pages. They come in various colors and have clear covers so that you can put a picture or text on the front and back. Also the spine is good for putting a title. The colors and the spine are important since I have ended up with a lot of them for different feasts and seasons of the year.

    They contain clear sheet protectors into which I put my text with artwork, photographs, etc. Often I will have text on one side and artwork on the other which means I can play around with artwork without changing the text. I enjoy formatting the text in various ways like a medieval manuscript.

    The main reason for their existence is that while I often pray the LOH or the Monastic Office from websites, I also often produce my own hybrid Byzantine-Roman office or offices closer to Anglican models such as the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Many of these have been very spiritually creative experiences and so it is good to have a record of them and to be able to come back to them so they are an important part of my culture of memory, maybe even more so than the prayer books of old.

    These are very easily carried and do not look much like a prayer book unless one uses particularly religious looking covers. So I can take mine down to the lake side park and not give the appearance of praying in public like the Pharisees (the park is so much better than shutting oneself up in one’s room).

    These binders also conveniently have little slots on the inside covers. I put a writing pad into one and take a pen so that I can write. Completed pages can be torn off and placed in the other inside pocket or in a blank sheet protector if they pertain to a particular text.

  10. Jack —
    Your books sound a bit fluid, shall we say, but have you thought of turning any of them into e-books?

    Wouldn’t it be a worthy project for all you liturgists if you compiled a group LOH from scratch. What a treasure it might be. If it were an e-book you could even include music and pictures, as Jack does.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #12:
      A big obstacle to e-books is copyright.

      For example in regard to the biblical texts, I have BibleWorks which gives me digit versions of Bibles in many languages. But most of these versions come with copyright limitations for their use. Even when they allow quotations far beyond the normal fair use, they usually require the quoted matter to be less that 20% of the total text.

      Some of these versions of the Bible are in the public domain, e.g. the Douay-Rheims and the Clementine text of the Vulgate. The alternative to using public domain texts is to make one’s own translation. Actually this is not a bad idea. Typically when I study the Bible using BibleWorks, I have it display each verse in many versions including the Greek, Vulgate and many English. Often I find I can make a translation that is “better” than any of the existing English ones.

      Another advantage of BibleWorks is that it has a Greek search engine that allows me to find all the occurrences of a Greek word in all its inflections in both the NT and OT.

      My “better” translations usually reflect the nuances of the word in other biblical texts. In some cases this may actually be picking up on the intentions of the human author of the text (Luke really loves to use Greek words that occur only in one or a few OT texts). In other cases it follows the practice of the early Church In interpreting the OT in light of the NT and vice versa. Finally it follows the liturgical practice of placing very unrelated texts next to each other to come up with a totally new insight.

      Although making one’s own translation can be a very interesting scholarly, spiritual, and creative experience, it is time consuming.

      Making an original prayer book for one’s personal use very substantially lowers the probability of copyright infringement , and greatly lowers the probably of prosecution if one might accidentally infringe on the use that I purchased with the BibleWorks program. Also the provisional nature of these works may put them into the use for study provisions of the copyright law.

      Music and pictures have similar copyright problems.

  11. Jack —

    Oh, Lordy, copyrighting does complicate things. But I wonder if the problems are insurmountable. The need is so great.

    True, if the Bible publishers agreed to a compilation of the best of all available prayers from the Bible, that would compete to some extent with their products. But such a prayer book would not discourage Biblical scholars (both professional and nonprofessional) from studying the Bible for its own sake. On the contrary, a great prayer book would be to the advantage of Bible publishers — the more interest in prayers from the Bible, the more interest in the Bibles.

    My vision of a new Liturgy of the Hours would include not only Biblical texts but also other prayers, of which there are many including the lyrics of classic hymns. And a new LOH would especially include newly composed prayers for people in this contemporary world which presents problems that are not reflected directly in the old prayers. Also, excerpts from old, non-copyrighted poems would be included, plus works from contemporary Christian poes. Not to mention short texts, old and new, for the purpose of reflexion.

    Yes, a humongous enterprise, but it’s needed. Maybe it could be broken into parts — Biblical prayers, non-biblical ones, hymn lyrics, old poems, new poems, old and new texts for reflection, plus sections for people in different “states of life” as they used to be called, and for people in different professions. And a special book for children.

    For starters, maybe each of those categories could have a site which lists URLs where relevant material can be found. That would be a start. But oh so tiresome. Sigh.

  12. Holy cards are a staple in my work as a jail chaplain. The assortment runs far and wide: ancient and modern icons, traditional saints with a brief story or quotes on the back, cross-cultural examples–when I send four different versions of Jesus or Mary, the response is always delight. My latest favorite is Mary, Undoer of Knots. Everyone resonates with the “knots in life” and appreciates knowing a friend whose prayer is that those knots be undone. (If I were an artist, I’d redo that image so Mary is holding a tangled bunch of Christmas tree lights, but that’s just me.

    I do watch what kind of prayers are printed with the image. Anything that smacks of “it’s never been known to fail” doesn’t make my collection. The images may be beautiful, but if the prayers are ugly, they are not worth the effort.

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