Sister Elizabeth Susan Hatzenbuehler, OSU

Sister Elizabeth Susan Hatzenbuehler, OSU“It’s a really simple thing, but it seems to make life a little easier,” says Sister Elizabeth Susan Hatzenbuehler of the adult coloring sessions she facilitates for homeless persons at Haven for Hope in San Antonio. “I keep saying I’m not an artist, I’m not trained in any way, but what I’m doing seems to fit a need.”

Sister Elizabeth Susan became involved with Haven for Hope—described as a “place of hope and new beginnings” for people experiencing homelessness—about a year ago when she accompanied Sister Julie Hickey to the campus to help out during a special art outreach activity.  Sister Julie has been on the Spiritual Services Team at Haven for six years. Volunteers like Sister Elizabeth Susan who provide a one-on-one presence to individuals on the campus are known as “soul friends.”

Sister Elizabeth Susan says she has long known the benefits of art therapy. “Through retreats, I discovered it helped me to center myself and pray if I colored or sketched.  So I thought, ‘what if I put out these things at Haven?’ I went on the internet and printed free things to color, then came one afternoon and set them out along with crayons, watercolors and paper that had been donated. Then I put on soft music.  And people started coming.”

The people who come are experiencing homelessness and have chosen to stay in the Courtyard at Haven for Hope, which is a place to live safely in an open space. “Some are very honest about saying they can’t stand being confined in a room, and Haven is respectful of that. They have left a big open space with a partial roof, and security inside, where people can stay yet be free to go in and out.”

About a year ago when the Courtyard was being renovated, Sister Elizabeth Susan decided it would be nice to decorate it. “I noticed a 4- by 6-foot bulletin board on the wall so I covered it with butcher paper and put up the finished coloring pages and sketches on the board. Then I saw people adding things to the wall. They had things they wanted to say and share. Art provides a way to do that. Soon people started coming over to it regularly to see what had been put up. It became a point of pride.”

She now facilitates adult coloring sessions twice a week. She says eight to 10 residents come regularly, often staying for several hours, peacefully absorbed in their coloring and enjoying the meditative music. Some professional artists also have come to work with the people. “They have identified people who have real talent. One artist comes regularly and mentors them.”

One of the women in the Courtyard, Susie, made the Christmas card for the Ursulines in San Antonio. “We were drawing Christmas trees.  She said ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” Sister Elizabeth Susan says. “Then she thought about it and said ‘this is how I’d draw a tree’ and she drew it! All of a sudden I saw a gleam in her eye. She added presents and a manger. She was so happy with it.”

In fact, Susie has become so interested in her coloring and sketching that Sister Elizabeth Susan sometime scrambles to keep her supplied with her favorite crayon colors. “She has really come alive through her art,” Sister Elizabeth Susan says. “Susie told me that drawing helped her know what her heart was feeling,” she adds. “I was very touched.”

Sister Elizabeth is happy to provide people experiencing homelessness with art supplies, a peaceful space, and a way to express their feelings. But at its heart, her ministry is about much more than that. As a soul friend, the one-on-one time she spends with individuals helps them to know they are heard and hopefully to be more trusting when they meet with the case managers, who can offer a wide array of programs and services to those without homes.

“I can be with people in a way that lets them know I’m there without being intrusive. They are being understood in a different way. It’s the very beginning of a relationship,” she says.

“What we can do as soul friends is prepare the soil. Then the case managers can come in and help people make decisions that will allow them to move forward with their lives.”