By Sister Joan Shalapin, ASC

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital selected three of Sister Joan Shalapin’s photos – out of 3,000 entries — for a photo gallery display at its new campus in O’Fallon, Ill. Sister Joan took her first photos as a child. More than a hobby, photography is where she meets the Divine.

I was only seven or eight years old when I purchased something that would make an impact on the rest of my life.

In those days, the popular Dubble-Bubble Gum had an offer on its wrapper: send 50 cents and 50 Dubble-Bubble Gum wrappers and we will send you a real camera!

It took me a while, but eventually I collected the 50 wrappers, some on the ground outside of grocery stores, and I mailed them off with my money. It took several weeks to arrive, but at last, the package came in the mail addressed to me and I excitedly opened my new, but small, 3-inch by 2 ½-inch black, plastic camera.

Photo by Sister Joan Shalapin, ASC

My dad often took pictures of our family with his Brownie camera, but we children were not allowed to use it. Now I had my own camera and I could take pictures, too. I couldn’t wait to try it out.

Not long after my camera came in the mail, our school had its end-of-year picnic at a park where we could go fishing and enjoy a picnic meal. That was the first place I recall being able to take pictures of a special event. The most memorable image of the day was one of my fourth-grade teacher, Sr. Myron, as she excitedly pulled in a small fish. She was glad to pose for me with her catch and right then, I was “hooked,” not on fish, but on taking pictures.

That little camera was the only bait I needed to send me in search of more interesting, beautiful scenes, objects and people.

I don’t remember how long that little camera lasted, and I’ve had several different cameras since then. Taking pictures taught me how to see in a new way, to see things that one might ordinarily pass by without even noticing their uniqueness and beauty, to see the gift of creation all around me.

I relished going to parks, to the woods, to the zoo, and other nature settings. I found a deep sense of peace in these discoveries of wonders in nature. It took years, but eventually I realized the deep spirituality born from these experiences that became my sacred prayer.

Photo by Sister Joan Shalapin, ASC

After I entered religious life, I continued to take pictures and develop them as slides, forming some into prayer experiences along with music, for various celebrations. I was able to share many of these programs with others over the years.

Gradually, I studied art in preparation for teaching art in high school. I took several photography courses and the experiences gave me knowledge and renewed confidence that I was on the right track.

I have had the opportunity to travel to many parts of the U.S., where I often find God’s presence, whether in a tiny ginkgo leaf on a city sidewalk, in the towering sequoia redwoods, in the fields of wheat, corn, and sunflowers, in the majestic Appalachian Mountains or in the face of a homeless person.

Photo by Sister Joan Shalapin, ASC

Sometimes I capture the beauty of the moment with a camera; but there are times when I commit the image to memory where I can review it forever in my mind’s eye.

For me, photography is one of my most sacred prayer experiences. It puts me in touch with God, and is my spiritual connection. Truly, it is my gate to Contemplation.

What makes me take a picture? When it grabs my heart.