"An Unlikely Aquilegia: North African Saint of Hippo" Artwork by Vernon Adams

Mission and Ministry is at the forefront of the fulfillment of Villanova’s mission. It is committed to do this by growing opportunities for people on campus and beyond to engage with Villanova’s mission and to practice the Augustinian values of truth, unity and love.

Through disseminating critical Catholic scholarship, promoting anti-racism efforts, partnering with churches and focusing on Black Catholics, and exploring social justice topics at lectures and programs, Villanova is tackling timely issues and providing opportunities for all Villanovans to grow. 



Within Mission and Ministry, Villanova's focus on Mission Engagement and Strategic Initiatives is led by Tia Noelle Pratt, PhD, Assistant Vice President and Director of Mission Engagement and Strategic Initiatives, Assistant Professor of Sociology, and Editor of the Journal of Catholic Social Thought. A sociologist of religion by training, Dr. Pratt received her PhD in Sociology from Fordham University in 2010. For more than twenty-five years, Dr. Pratt has researched and written about systemic racism in the U.S. Catholic Church and its impact on African-American Catholic identity. Dr. Pratt is also the curator of the #BlackCatholicsSyllabus. Dr. Pratt is currently working on a book, Faithful and Devoted: Racism and Identity in the African-American Catholic Experience which is under contract with University of Notre Dame Press. Her work has been featured in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, multiple edited volumes, as well as Faithfully, Commonweal, The Revealer, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, and America.



“An Unlikely Aquilegia:  North African Saint of Hippo”

This dynamic portrait of St. Augustine was long envisioned by Villanova’s president, Fr. Peter Donohue, OSA.  It was commissioned by the Office of the President in 2022 and created by Dallas, TX-based artist, Vernon Adams.  The portrait was unveiled on November 3, 2022, during the Second Annual Mother Mary Lange Lecture in Black Catholic Studies by Fr. Peter and Mr. Adams.  During Mr. Adams’ visit to Villanova, he said he wanted to depict St. Augustine “as a person, not a Super Saint”.  This sentiment is akin to Fr. Peter’s stated vision prior to the commission when he said he wanted a depiction of St. Augustine “as a man, not an icon”.

While the original is displayed in Gallagher Hall, there are several framed, canvas prints displayed around the university including but not limited to: the Office for Mission and Ministry, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the Office of Belonging and Inclusion, the Office for Student, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, the College of Professional Studies, and the Widger School of Law.  The School of Graduate Studies displays a digital version.  Having “An Unlikely Aquilegia” displayed in multiple places around campus allows it to be seen often by the Villanova community and have a significant role in the university’s discourse and thought leadership on St. Augustine.

Aquilegia is the scientific name of the Columbine flower. The meanings of the flower include “faith” and “wisdom”. For the artist, Vernon Adams, St. Augustine’s early life, vis-à-vis who he became, made him An Unlikely Aquilegia.                   

In April 2023, Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt, Assistant Vice President for Mission Engagement and Strategic Initiatives wrote an article about “An Unlikely Aquilegia” for U.S. Catholic, "Augustine's African Heritage Matters".  “An Unlikely Aquilegia” was also featured in the Spring 2023 issue of Villanova Magazine.  These two articles provide insight into why the painting was commissioned and the challenge it presents to the Villanova community and beyond. Not surprisingly, the articles, in particular, the U.S. Catholic article, sparked racist backlash.  While the attacks were most unwelcomed, they show how the painting challenges thinking about St. Augustine. In that respect, the painting fulfills its purpose. 

“An Unlikely Aquilegia” is rich in symbolism relating to St. Augustine, specifically, and his Amaziah heritage, more broadly.  Elements of note include but are not limited to:

  • Stained Glass – an embedded image of St. Monica praying for the conversion of her son.
  • Pears – a reference to a well-known part of St. Augustine’s conversion story found in Confessions, Book II, Chapter 6, Paragraph 12 
  • Headwear – a traditional woven kufi
  • Ivy – Algerian Ivy native to North Africa
  • Blue wall – modeled on Algerian architecture
  • Crozier – a replica of a crozier housed in the Ashmolean Museum in the UK. The crozier was donated to the museum in the 17th century and at that time, was believed to have belonged to St. Augustine. It was eventually determined to be from a later period.
  • Crucifix – is modeled on a crucifix worn by Archbishop Desmond Tutu thus connecting two African bishops who lived nearly two millennia apart.
  • Open Book – acknowledges St. Augustine’s transformative scholarship.
  • Flaming Heart – the pierced, flaming heart is intimately connected with St. Augustine, the Augustinians, and Villanova. The light of the heart is indicative of the light of God in our lives while the piercing shows the Spirit of God piercing our hearts.