I have never believed that abortion was anything other than a violation of God's command against murder. Even though I grew up in a pseudo-Christian cult (Jehovah's Witnesses) I recognized that, and so, when I finally became a Protestant Christian, there was little to change in my understanding on that subject. But when I became Catholic, it was another story. Before I was "against abortion" but in becoming Catholic, I became truly pro-life.
The were two main ways that being pro-life as a Catholic differed from being "against abortion" as a Protestant: comprehending that artificial birth control perverted marriage and having the Blessed Virgin to contemplate.
As I was undergoing my conversion to the Catholic faith, Mary's maternal interest in me personally became apparent to me, and the historic images of her in art and iconography became quite interesting to me. One sees through the ages that Catholic artists have drawn their Blessed Mother close to them and close to their times with art. Unique among all images of Mary is the icon of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, painted by no human hand, but also unusual in depicting Mary as pregnant. Contemplating these representations of the Blessed Virgin in an age that has declared war upon its own unborn, it occurred to me that an image not merely depicting Mary as pregnant, but instead also showing the Divine Christ Child in her womb would be particularly fitting for our day. This impression was very strong upon me, but I am not an artist.
Nellie Edwards is an artist. When I saw her painting, "Light of Life," the very strong impression that I felt years ago was renewed and fulfilled. Here was what I had pondered in my heart a decade earlier, only strikingly more beautiful: Our Lord, fully God and fully man — fully God and fully unborn infant — is cradled in the womb of the Blessed Mother. The story of how this marvelous and startling portrait of Our Lady came to be interested me greatly, so I was eager to learn about it from the artist herself.
MK: Nellie, your pro-life activism has a long history. Tell me how you became such an activist.
Nellie Edwards: I was born January 10, 1955 and raised in Yakima Washington, the sixth of 10 children. I made my first pro-life statement, of sorts, when I was 5 days old. Being born on the 100th anniversary of the Yakima YWCA, I was the tiny guest of honor at their celebration banquet. When one woman heard that I was the 6th child for my parents, she gasped, saying loudly, "Don't they know what causes that?!" My dad responded by saying, "Yes, I think it's called love!" That story was repeated to me almost every year on my birthday, for the first 10 years of my life.
I was educated in the parochial school system and the nuns (Dominicans to the 3rd grade and The Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary to the 8th grade) inculcated in me the desire to use my talents and abilities to help others, and especially to help them to know Jesus Christ.
I have strong memories of my mother, kneeling at her bedside each morning and again every night. From her I learned the importance of prayer and sacrificial love in marriage. She and Dad both prayed the Rosary with all of us for many of my childhood years. My favorite part was always, "and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus."
As a young newlywed, married Aug. 30, 1975 to Chrys Edwards, who had immigrated from Wales, I read Humanae Vitae. I quickly realized it was a truly prophetic document. I could see how the contraceptive mentality would open Pandora's Box and corrupt the moral fabric of society and thankfully, had little trouble convincing my husband of this. (At the time, he had not yet converted from the Church of England.) Through our discussions, he became convinced of the immorality of abortion and later supported my pro-life apostolate.
(Click here and maximize window to view the complete painting.)
MK: So, in a way, this picture you have painted is actually a fruit of Humanae Vitae, being something that speaks, not merely to the evil of abortion, but also to the immorality of the contraception mentality. You see that the two things cannot be separated.
Nellie Edwards: Yes. Ever since reading Humanae Vitae, I realized that, to stop the killing of babies in their mother's wombs, the pro-life movement would have to convince society of the evil that is artificial birth control. With most of the mainline denominations caving in on the issue of contraception, it would mean that we have to set ourselves to building Christian unity — by which I mean that we Catholics would need to speak to the consciences of our separated brethren — so I began to initiate the topic at every opportunity.
The Lord gave me fundamentalist friends. One evening I was invited to attend a "Prayer Rally for Life" planning meeting at the home of some new friends. I was the only Catholic in a group of about 30 Protestants. To start with, they prayed spontaneously, "Jesus, you are Lord…We trust in you…etc., etc." Afterwards, I said, "I have to tell you that Jesus is not going to bless the efforts of the Pro-life movement until Christian couples stop contracepting…We cannot say Jesus is Lord of our lives, while going against his natural order, separating the unitive and procreative elements of the sexual act. Is that any different than homosexual sex? Sterile sex is what they have too." All eyes seemed to get as big as mayo lids!
Soon — and I mean soon — couples began to make excuses as to why they had to leave, though the meeting was far from over, until myself and the host couple were the only ones left. They stood there, looking at me with incredulous faces… and I was prepared to be shown the door, so it was a great joy for me when they hugged me, saying, "Your words had the ring of Truth! We always knew, deep down, that it was wrong to use birth control." Then we prayed for the other couples, that they too would see the light of this vital truth.
MK: Nellie, while you were still a young mother, your family suffered the loss of an infant. How did that experience further shape your pro-life consciousness?
Nellie Edwards: It is God's grace that allows us to see the value in every human life — even those who, as our own baby, die before birth. In 1980, we lost a child just 2 weeks before her due date. It had been a normal pregnancy, so I was full of anticipation, looking forward to our first embrace. The night before I found out she died, I had put our two little girls (our 1st and 2nd children) to bed and sat on the sofa, praying. Suddenly, Romans 8:28 flashed in my mind: "All things work together for good…." At the time, I remember thinking, "Well, that's always a good one to remember." I finished my prayers but not before there was a flurry of stronger than usual kicking within my womb. I was taken aback and felt relief when it subsided. Within about an hour, a strong queasiness came over me and I thought, "Well, tomorrow is my regular exam; I'll tell the doctor."
As I lay on the examination table the next morning, my doctor repeatedly searched for the baby's heartbeat and finally, in a grave voice informed me, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Edwards, your baby seems to be in demise." These were the saddest words I ever had to hear, since it meant that our precious Chrystine (a name I had chosen to honor her daddy) would not be joining our little family after-all. I realized that all the overt activity the night before had been her last efforts to remain alive. Almost immediately, I recalled the neon-like scripture and literally cried out, "Okay Lord, I'm claiming this for my husband's conversion." I refused to allow a D & C, which the doctor said was necessary to remove our child from my womb due to concerns that I could become ill from the bacteria of her decomposing body — but I knew the Lord would not allow that. Her lifeless body remained within me for 10 days, until I delivered her naturally. During that time, I also offered up the loss of our child for her little unborn peers who would die by abortion, because their mothers were being manipulated and lied to.
Chrys had never known his own father, since his mother divorced while pregnant with him. He was allowed no contact, though, as an adult, my husband found out from relatives that his father was actually a good man. Through the outpouring of concern and sympathy from the husbands of my good Catholic friends, I believe Chrys was able to connect, for the first time, with God as a loving father. Within a year he had joined me in the Catholic Church. I realized that the death of our daughter was the means of new life for her father and I came to understand more than ever before that the Holy Scriptures are indeed the living word of God. This sustained me through all my subsequent pregnancies and the host of difficulties inherent in raising a large family.
MK: Raising a large family was becoming a counter-cultural move during the late '70s and '80s, when it seems that we were at the height of the "population bomb" hysteria. I was having my children at this time also, and people could not seem to understand why anyone would have more than two when it was "so easy" to prevent it. I wasn't Catholic at the time, but I have since learned that the rejection of Humanae Vitae among Catholics meant that they were contracepting in nearly the same numbers as the general population. Did you observe this?
Nellie Edwards: Sad to say, but, yes. I knew quite a few Catholic couples who contracepted, and some would talk about their tubal ligations casually, as if they had just had dental work done. I even discovered that many of my own relatives had taken that unfortunate path. Beginning in 1981, when I was pregnant for the third time, I started getting rude comments — even from strangers — about the size of my family. They would say things like, "Are you done?" I would reply, "What am I, a cake?" Then there was the classic "Don't you know what causes that?" One time a man who I knew attended our parish said something similar to that, so I indignantly said, "No, can you explain it to me?" He turned beet red, mumbled something, and walked quickly away. The point is, I was getting the signal that children were being seen, not as a gift from God but in fact, annoyances — an infringement on the air space of others — so I realized I should get more deeply involved in the war to end abortion. As the mother of little ones, I thought the least I could do would be to write letters to the editor and help with pro-life campaigns.
This was my level of involvement in 1982, but even though I did have my hands full with a baby and his 4 and 6 year old sisters, I felt I should be doing something more, though I didn't have a clue as to what. Some time later, I had a series of dreams, which were very frightening. They were nearly identical each time: I was hiding from the Nazis in open places, such as wheat fields or meadows. I was completely vulnerable. After about the 5th such dream within a 2 week time period, I sat up on the edge of my bed and was stunned to realize that God was telling me to act like defenseless babies were really dying, by going to an abortuary just 2 blocks from our parish church and showing I cared. Unbeknownst to me, 4 other Catholic women were coming to the same conclusion, though not by dreams.
The Holy Spirit arranged for us to meet at a parish function and discover that we had the same zeal for the protection of innocent life. We started an affiliate of Catholics United for Life and began praying at the abortion clinic on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, 1983. That first day, one young woman rejected our offer of assistance, seemingly determined to have an abortion… but came out 2 or 3 minutes later, saying something like, "Thank you for being here; I realize this isn't the answer." The abortionist hired off duty policemen right after we started, but we were able to convince them, one at a time, to quit doing "guard duty," by showing them abortion pictures. They accepted pro-life lapel pins from us and actually showed up at our first trial, wearing them.
MK: You went to trial? How did that come about?
Nellie Edwards: We followed the guidelines of CUL to pray the Rosary and peacefully disseminate pro-life literature, as well as quietly talk to young mothers, offering assistance, as we had the opportunity. The facility was housed in a professional medical center owned by a Catholic doctor who passed himself off as pro-life and was even an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at our church. We wanted our pastor to pressure him to oust the abortion clinic from his premises, but the pastor would take no action. So we went to our bishop, who was no more interested in confronting this man than the pastor had been, and to our dismay kept referring to "people that bomb abortion clinics!" Of course, we assured the bishop that we didn't advocate violence toward anyone, but the bottom line was that he would take no action nor would he ask our priest to do so.
The owner of the complex called the police, which led to our going to trial for trespassing. We confined ourselves to the sidewalk, most of the time, although I did go into the abortuary once, in order to reach one young mother, whom the "guards" had rushed into the building — physically taking her by the arm and shouting, so as to drown out our voices, as we invited her to come hear us out. (So much for choice.)
Our first trial was in 1984 and the second in 1985. We actually welcomed the situation to establish our 1st Amendment right to gather and protest. Since we had placed our apostolate under the protection of Our Lady, the Rosary was our first order of business each time we gathered at the abortuary. At the first trial, we naturally reached for our rosaries, praying inaudibly as we sat in the defendant's box. We were elated when, at the onset of the first trial the judge stated, "For the record, I believe that life begins at the moment of conception…. Anyone, with a degree of intelligence, must have an opinion on this matter." Then he quickly added, "I will try this case based on established law but if anyone wishes me to step down, I will do so." We were prepared to see the abortionist and his company of paid witnesses raise their hands with faces gloating, but instead, their hands remained down as if restrained by the angels and on their faces were frowns of consternation. This, for us, was another illustration of the power and vital importance of the Holy Rosary in the fight for life.
We were vindicated both times and resumed our efforts to save babies and their mothers from abortion. At times, I brought my children along, as a living advertisement for life. One day, a woman in her 70s angrily approached us and said she never wanted kids and wouldn't want anyone to tell her she had to. Our Andrew was about 4 at the time and looking up at her with a scrunched up face, cocked to one side, he said loudly, "Hey, Lady, you some kind 'a nut!?" He knew it wasn't sane to see children in that way.
At one point, we borrowed a flatbed farm truck from a friend and placed a 20 foot billboard with a photo of an aborted baby on it — that really stirred up the hornet's nest. The abortionist's staff tried to bully us into removing it, behaving like a horde of banshees.
A 60-year-old woman got out of car and pulled a gun from her purse. From what I can only conclude was amazing grace, we were quite calm and proceeded to try to talk to her. She shrieked the most vile vulgarities at us and wanted to know, "By what right do you interfere with the choices of others?" I asked her, "Have you had an abortion yourself?" She was too old to have had it after Roe v. Wade but I just had the sense that she too was a victim of "the killing solution." As soon as the question passed over my lips, the floodgates opened and she began to weep uncontrollably as we reached out to her and embraced her. When she finally regained her composure, she recounted how she had become pregnant at the age of 17. Her boyfriend threatened to walk out on her if she didn't "get rid of it." Her best friend exhorted her to do as he wanted and her own mother agreed.
She related more, saying, "It was almost right away that I began to feel terrible guilt… I couldn't sleep and no one would let me talk about it. My boyfriend flew into a rage each time I tried to bring it up. Before long, he broke up with me and I became severely depressed… wanting to kill myself." She then told us, "I had to stuff it and try to justify it… even telling myself that I had the right to have or not have a child." She eventually aligned herself with N.O.W. and other pro-abortion groups, in order to survive mentally and emotionally, becoming, as she said, "as tough as any street-brawling sailor." When she was about to leave us, she turned around and said, "I think I need to take as much pro-life literature as I can, and start doing something to stop abortion."
What a tremendous blessing that was! We loaded her up and she hugged us gratefully before returning to her car. She waved until she rounded the corner.
We saw, time and again, that the young mothers we encountered were there, not by their 'choice' but because of someone else's — even the baby's own grandmothers, who would say such things as, "I raised my kids, I'm not raising theirs!"
We continued our sidewalk vigil, twice a week, for four years, until, in 1987, the abortionist closed up shop and retired. It was a tremendous blessing to know for sure, that at least a dozen babies were spared death. Many of the abortionist's customers drove away once they saw us but we had no way of knowing whether they went somewhere else to have an abortion. I did feel a sense of relief, because I no longer had to face the graphic reality of abortion in my own back yard, but knew I had to ask, "What do you want me to do now Lord?"
He wanted me to be the mother of eight children, for one thing!
MK: Well, having eight children is itself a witness to life, but God seems to have given you a gift for boldness in speaking about this subject.
Nellie Edwards: I have always been cognizant of the importance for our children to witness us engaging others in discussions of life issues. One hot summer afternoon, we were on our way home and had to stop for road construction. Almost immediately I began a conversation with the flagger, a young man of about 20 years of age. He told us he was planning to return to "Bible College" and that he wanted to work with youth. Of course, I saw my opportunity. The kids were amazed at my comfort level when discussing sexuality with a total stranger. I explained to them, "That is why a healthy prayer life is essential: prayer and the sacraments supply the oil for our spiritual engine. The Holy Spirit supplies the fuel, which keeps us on the road of His holy will."
I had a Catholic doctor, whom I knew prescribed birth control, and I politely but firmly, challenged him about it, to which he said, "If they don't come to me, they'll go to the next guy." I told him, "Strange, that's exactly what the abortionist told us!" I had nearly the same conversation with our Catholic pharmacist. I have put my doctors and pharmacists on pro-life mailing lists and encourage others to do the same. You never know, it may be the catalyst for their return to grace.
MK: How did you add promoting the right to life through your art along with speaking out?
Nellie Edwards: After a series of events in the summer of 1996, it seemed to be God's will that we move our family to North Dakota. We had been asking God if we might relocate our family to a more wholesome environment — away from the violent crime and pop culture which plagued our small city… but I never imagined such a remote setting! I remember wondering, "What can I do there, to help build the Culture of Life?" Of course, I knew that prayer is vital but I truly believed I was supposed to do something more.
We first settled in a small town with less than 200 population. While still in Washington, I had begun a small hobby-level business designing, sculpting and hand casting, ornaments, jewelry and magnets. My kids assisted with hand-painting the product. Shortly after our move we were able to purchase a building, which became a workshop, allowing us to expand to a full-fledged family business. Soon, our product was in stores across the country. (Two of our best known regular customers were Biltmore Estate and Chateau Elan of Brastleton, GA.)
From the beginning, I knew that I should promote our faith and the Catholic view of the family with my artistic ability, so I designed pro-life pins and religious ornaments, conveying "The Real Christmas." But I desired strongly to do something on a wider scale, to help convert people to the side of life.
I decided to call the business "Mother of Eight Designs" in order to evangelize. As word got out, I began to get invitations to speak. The first came from the Minot Air Force Base Officer's Wives Club. I was apprehensive but realized it must be God's will and decided to use the opportunity to plant seeds of the Catholic Faith. After the talk, one young woman came up to me and related that she and her husband had been "going back and forth about having more children." They had two. She winked at me and said, "I'm going home to tell my husband, that we're keeping the baby clothes!"
I never dreamed my talk would have that kind of impact! Many more invitations came: from the Christian Women's Club, Basin Electric annual manager's wives luncheon, and the Farm Credit Services annual banquet. I spoke at the Dickinson State University entrepreneur conference, where I told students, especially the women, to start home businesses if they had children so as not to abdicate their parental responsibility. At the YWCA Annual Women of Distinction Awards, I congratulated the coordinator on being so intuitive as to ask me to be their keynote speaker, and then told them that I had been named "Miss YWCA" due to being born on that significant day.
I tell audiences that my hero, John Paul II, was personally handed some of our religious ornaments by Bishop James Sullivan on his last Ad Liminae visit. That was truly the most incredible feeling for me, to know that our beloved "Papa" held an extension of myself and my family in his sacred hands and actually pronounced a blessing on "The Edwards Family." And I really do believe it reached us!
In the spring of 2005, I was on my way to Bismarck to give a talk to a group of 300 women, who were meeting for an annual business banquet. En route, I prayed for a sign, in terms of God's will for me as an artist. I had been getting the idea that I should do religious designs on a larger scale . I requested to meet an accomplished sculptor as confirmation that this was truly God's will. After my well-received address, I took my assigned seat at the banquet table. The woman seated to the right of me handed me her business card, asking, "You'll come visit me in my studio, won't you?" On the face of the card was a photo of an exquisite sculpture she had done — a mother gazing at her newborn baby! With her encouragement I began to work toward doing larger-scale sculpting, starting with a series of 'bas relief' wall plaques. After 4 months, I had sculpted 5 inspirational designs, and was looking forward to working on statuary in the round. A few weeks later, our sizable shop was in a charred pile, burned to the ground.
MK: That must have been a hard loss to take, especially right when you thought God was wanting you to start doing larger scale works.
Nellie Edwards: I first thought, "Did I miss something Lord?" I had to trust once again, that this actually fit in God's plan, which so often flies in the face of human reason. As a habit by now, I relied on God's Word: Romans 8:28, Phil. 4:13, and Matt. 6:33, which exhorts, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all the rest shall be added unto you."
In early 2006, my sons asked me to help prepare some design patterns they needed in order to do decorative tile inlays for the floor tiling business they had started. To create the inlay patterns, I used a basic PC program. But it was difficult to use the mouse to do much of the work freehand so in January of this year, I turned to a PC Tablet with a stylus, to use like a pen. After using it for a few simple graphic designs, I was stunned to suddenly realize that I could use the tablet and stylus like a painter uses a canvas and brush.
(Click here and maximize window to view the complete painting.)
I was astonished, since I had always worked with clay, not having a formal fine-art painting background. I soon discerned an inspiration to "paint" a new depiction of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. Deliberately, as a test, to determine if indeed this was a true inspiration, I used no preliminary drawing, nor visual aids. Without a preconceived composition, I prayed and proceeded. Soon, the background and person of Kateri was formed and I instinctively placed the lilies in the foreground on either side of her. (She is normally shown holding them.) It was like watching someone else work. The composition came about almost organically — the colors, the garments, the background — all came without forethought, as if flowing through the brush. I called it "Holding on to Faith."
MK: What was the significance of Kateri? Why do you think you were being led to paint her?
Nellie Edwards: Since purity, humility, charity and perseverance are essential virtues for all, especially youth, Kateri, who exhibited them heroically, is a more relevant role model today than ever before. Blessed Kateri was very devoted to Our Lady and the Holy Rosary. This is vital if we are to defeat Satan and restore the ethic of the sanctity of human life. I also believe that the American Indian will realize a vital role in restoring respect for God's creation — including the unborn — since they are oriented that way culturally.
While I was painting Blessed Kateri, Fr. Steve Kranz called me to invite me to be a speaker at an annual Catholic Indian Conference sponsored by his parish, on June 2nd. I had never before spoken at an American Indian event and the priest had no way of knowing that I was painting Kateri. I spoke on the contraception-abortion connection and the imperative of becoming involved in the effort to save the unborn and I used Blessed Kateri as an example of going beyond our comfort zone to live for Christ. By the time of the conference, my painting was done and I was able to offer prints of "Holding on to Faith". My talk and the prints were well received. This, for me, was a wonderful confirmation that these images I am creating have a mission – one I hope will inspire prayerful action on behalf of the unborn.
I was thrilled when Sister Kateri Mitchell, the Executive Director of the National Tekakwitha Conference, saw it and said, "Congratulations! She is beautiful!" She actually ordered the art prints for their annual event in Baltimore.
Within a couple of weeks of painting Blessed Kateri, I received an inspiration to paint an unborn child in the womb. A bit later, I pondered painting Our Lady but dismissed the idea of attempting Mary as too big a task. Within a half hour of this, I was showing the Blessed Kateri image to someone who said she loved it and then quickly added, "You need to paint the Blessed Mother!" I realized that the unborn baby would be Jesus, the "Lord of the Unborn."
Once again, without a drawing or visual aid, I prayed and began. When I finished, I checked to see if the anatomy of the Unborn Christ was accurate by comparing it with internet photos of pre-born babies. It was so close there was nothing I could change. I had hoped that Jesus in-utero would have the look of 4 or 5 months gestation, the age most are aborted. I was not disappointed.
MK: Nellie, this image is beautiful and certainly thought-provoking. I wish our readers coud see the actual print as our image viewer cannot fully convey the detail and luminosity of this when printed full-size. It inspires contemplation about the mystery of the Incarnation. What kind of response have you received so far and do you have any idea what may be in store for the future?
Nellie Edwards: This is the first wide-scale exposure for "The Light of Life." Meantime, I have been using it to evangelize at every opportunity. I am especially grateful that all the Protestants to see it thus far have been enthusiastic in their approval, even asking for copies for their homes. One Protestant business associate said, "I have never heard these things, but I see it's the truth!" I can't help but wonder if Mary has found a way into Protestant hearts and homes, which would help facilitate Christian unity, so vital to restoring the Culture of Life. If the print is prominently displayed in homes where lax family members and visitors cannot help but see, I believe it will aid in bringing them back into the Faith. Many will find, as I do, that it will be a powerful visual aid when praying the Holy Rosary. I do plan to continue speaking and using the images to evangelize, as is, I believe, their purpose.
Eventually, we want to make banners available to parishes for indoor and outdoor use and we are interested in hearing from pro-life groups who might like to partner with us in using or distributing these banners. Click here to contact us by email about the banners. (To order prints see the Special Announcement below.)
My heartfelt prayer to the Lord of the Unborn is that those who have heretofore been inclined to leave it to others to end the scourge of abortion and related depravities, will realize the critical urgency of doing whatever they can, in their circumstance, to restore the Culture of Life.
Special Announcement: For a limited time, the "Light of Life" print is available through exclusive arrangement with Catholic Exchange for just $30.00. This is a high-quality 11"X 14" art print suitable for framing. Click here to order. You may also combine your order of the Light of Life print with the print of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, "Holding on to Faith," or receive two "Light of Life" prints for $55.00. Discount bulk orders also accepted here.
[For prayerful meditation on the Light of Life, click here for The Helper's Litany to Jesus in the Womb of Mary.]