Donate to RNS

Billboard Campaign Urges Drivers to `Use Your Common Saints’

c. 2006 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Monday morning. You’re crawling along at 20 mph, slurping coffee and avoiding calls from the office. You drive by the usual billboards hawking beer and condo developments, when suddenly there appears a message from St. Jude. Yes, St. Jude. No, it’s not a vision. On Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway, the […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Monday morning. You’re crawling along at 20 mph, slurping coffee and avoiding calls from the office. You drive by the usual billboards hawking beer and condo developments, when suddenly there appears a message from St. Jude.

Yes, St. Jude. No, it’s not a vision.

On Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway, the main artery from O’Hare Airport and the northern suburbs into the heart of the city, Jesuit publisher Loyola Press is sponsoring a series of banners bearing tongue-in-cheek messages from five saints. The campaign, dubbed “Use Your Common Saints,” launched June 26 and runs through Sept. 4 to promote the spiritual memoir “My Life With the Saints.”

“The notion that sanctity means you go around with a sour face all day is a misinterpretation. A humorous campaign like this reminds us that the saints are human and approachable,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and the book’s author.

On July 11, “St. Joseph says construction takes patience,” a play on Jesus’ father’s carpentry profession, replaced “St. Jude knows an alternate route.” St. Joan of Arc takes over Monday (July 24) with an admonition to “keep your cool,” a reference to the fiery manner of her death. St. Anthony, who traditionally receives pleas to locate lost items, steps in Aug. 7 offering wayward drivers “roadside assistance,” and St. Ignatius, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuits, closes out the series by encouraging “Mass transit.” The banners hang from the back of the rectory of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, which abuts the expressway.

“We didn’t want to do an overt ad campaign. We’re always challenging ourselves to take our message to where people live, where people are experiencing their days,” said Joe Durepos, Loyola’s acquisitions director. “Jim’s whole thesis is that the saints were ordinary people like you and I who did extraordinary things when called by God. He takes the saints off the stained glass windows and puts them in the car beside you.”

Although Loyola would not release specific figures, Durepos said the publisher’s Web site, listed on the banners, registered a 10 percent bump in traffic during its first week, helped in part by Catholic blogs that publicized the initiative. Before the campaign kicked off, “My Life With the Saints” had already sold 12,000 copies since its release in March.

“This whole thing is not driven by commerce, it’s driven by mission. It drives you in (to the site), where you can experience the book for free, and then if you want the whole book, by all means buy the book,” said Durepos.

Oscar Delgado, a 44-year-old St. Stanislaus parishioner, said he planned to purchase the book based on the excerpt he downloaded online. Rather than feeling pushed to buy something, he said he appreciated the way the banners stood out from the other advertisements along the Kennedy Expressway.

“They’re commenting on something deeper, something intangible, and you don’t expect to see that. You’re stuck in traffic, having a bad day, you look at that sign, and it adds another perspective,” he said. “It’s a way of connecting the saints to real-life people. They had to deal with the same problems we’re dealing with.”

For a few hundred dollars (Durepos declined to say exactly how much the publisher spent on the banners, and St. Stanislaus offered the space for free), Loyola can reach the estimated 650,000 people who travel the Kennedy daily. By contrast, a quarter-page book ad in the Sunday Chicago Tribune, with a circulation of nearly 2.9 million, would cost $17,000.

It’s not the first time St. Stanislaus’ pastor, the Rev. Anthony Bus, has used his prime space for grass-roots advertising. In 2004, Michael Sullivan was driving on the Kennedy when he noticed a banner for “The Passion of the Christ” hanging in the same spot. Intrigued, he pulled over. “I thought, `I have got to meet that priest,”’ said Sullivan, 35. Since then, he and his wife have attended St. Stanislaus on a regular basis.

The chance to reach millions of people who don’t read the Catholic publications or visit the religious bookstores where Loyola’s books are normally advertised and sold presents an opportunity for a Catholic book, or at least an invitation to learn about Catholic saints, to break out of its niche and capture a wider audience, echoing Loyola’s sense of mission.

“The idea that people can think about saints and religion in unlikely situations is very Jesuit,” said Martin. “Our motto is finding God in all places _ even on the Kennedy Expressway.”

Seeking intercession on a highway from St. Jude, the patron of hopeless causes, may not be so incongruous after all. “If you’ve never driven into Chicago on the Kennedy at rush hour, under construction, I can only tell you it would try the patience of a saint,” Durepos said.

DSB/PH END CIPOLLA