Beads of faith: Exploring the diversity of American rosaries in the museum’s collection

By Emma Cieslik
Rosary with metal crucifix and black beads. Circular and rectangular medals are positioned regularly along the chain

Rosaries or prayer beads are an essential part of American material religion, the study of the objects, icons, images, and spaces of religious practice in the United States. Although rosaries and prayer beads are not limited to Catholicism—many religions use them in everyday practice, including the Episcopal and Orthodox churches, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and more—the museum's collection particularly captures the diversity of American Catholicism and the people who make use of rosaries as part of their faith: from a World War II chaplain to a famous jazz musician to a meteorologist tracking a category five hurricane.

I was raised in a devout Catholic family, and some of my earliest memories are of receiving rosaries. I distinctly remember a woman who hand-crated rosaries at my parish coming to my house in second grade, allowing me to pick out the bead and chain color for my First Communion rosary. My most valuable rosary, however, is one that was not originally mine. It was my grandmother’s rosary, given to me by my dad. She held tightly to it during her fight with breast cancer, the beads’ paint worn off from use. I speak from experience, but also with a passion for studying the objects that surround all American religious experience.

Rosaries are designed as devotionals, or religious objects like scapulars, holy medals, and crucifixes that are carried by the religious as part of their worship. In the case of these objects, beads, medals, or knots appear at regular intervals along a string or chain, each one connoting a prayer and instilling a specific rhythm to an observer’s worship. The beads and chains of these prayer tools were and are also made of a variety of materials—gold, coral, glass, and seed, to name a few—across the United States and across time, the diversity of styles and of American Catholic experiences captured in the museum’s religion collection.

In the Catholic tradition, rosaries are intended to help users contemplate four “mysteries”—joyful, sorrowful, glorious, and luminous. All Catholic rosaries follow the same pattern: a circular string or chain is attached to a shorter one with a cross on the end, where people praying begin and end their sequence. Along this string are beads and knots, each representing a specific prayer, including “Our Father,” “Hail Mary,” “Glory Be,” “Fatina,” “Hail Holy Queen,” and “Nicene Creed” prayers. Some beads and prayers are clustered, such as decades or sets of ten “Hail Mary” prayers along the circle.

Rosary with wooden beads and a cross. The rosary includes four large milagros, including one shaped like a human leg.
Made of silver, gold, horn, seed, wood, and coral, this rosary is part of the Vidal Collection. This object is part of a collection of thousands of objects amassed by Teodoro Vidal that showcases the cultural history of Puerto Rico between the 1500s and 1800s. (1997.0097.1088.001)

Given the personal nature of a rosary’s use, some rosary owners add pendants or holy medals specific to their situation or patron saint, such as this rosary in the Vidal Collection from Puerto Rico, likely made in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Attached to the string in between the beads are pendants of body parts, animals, or objects. These special beads or folk charms—called milagros or “miracles"—represent offerings to a particular saint and were and are especially popular in Mexico, the southwestern United States, and Latin America.

Usually about half an inch in size, milagros were sometimes pinned to wooden crosses, statues of saints and their clothing, or other objects, like rosaries, as part of requests to saints for protection, healing, health, or good luck. Use of milagros was sometimes accompanied by a prayer request to a saint, later repaid by a pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to that specific saint, where the Milagro may be left pinned to a statue or object at the site.

A small eye-shaped metal stamped token, attached to a short white string
Milagros are very similar to a variety of small votive offerings across religious traditions. This Milagro depicts a metal pair of eyes. (1988.0688.05)
A rectangular metal charm with a textured surface surrounding a smooth stamped eye in the center and a hole near the top center.
Like the Milagro above, this ex-voto (a small token left at a shrine in a vow or offering of gratitude, common to many Christian traditions, shown below) also features an eye. Milagros and ex-voto are also very similar to tamata, or τάμα in Greek, another small, stamped metal votive offering common in Eastern Orthodox Churches and placed at shrines to specific saints. (2012.0165.610.06)

Today, milagros are still made, given, worn, and attached to rosaries, especially in Latinx communities. Often, rosary owners may have a particular saint in mind, whether a confirmation or patron saint, and may add similar pendants or medals to their rosary or jewelry. Patron saints are often chosen because of interest, occupation, or situation, like St. Pelagia, patron saint of actresses, or St. Jude, patron saint of desperate situations and lost causes.

Rosaries are often made for or gifted by a relative or friend in recognition of a major life event or take on meaning based on when they were used or who used them. Many Catholic families consider rosaries family heirlooms, passing them down from generation to generation.

For one chaplain serving in the South Pacific during World War II, a rosary was part of his supplies on the field, along with epaulettes with cross icons and a crucifix. As his unit noted in a handwritten letter on February 20, 1945, “your presence among us has been one never to be forgotten. Your courage and stamina for that which is right has made you not only our chaplain but, which is more, a true friend.” For Chaplain LT Ernest D. Miller, United States Navy Reserve, this rosary likely provided security when serving soldiers far from home and functioned to keep the memory of these soldiers and his experiences alive.

Two military epaulettes with cross icons, rosary, and a handwritten letter dated February 20, 1945. A crucifix, a triangular patch, eagle pins, and other metal pins and decorations are in clear bags
What do you pack for a war? For some soldiers during World War II, faith was an important source of security and strength, and many turned to chaplains. Chaplains worked in hospitals, at embarkment ports, in stockades, and on troop ships as part of the Chaplain Corps, providing support, services, and last rites for those wounded or dying. For Chaplain LT Ernest D. Miller, this rosary was a critical part of his kit. (2008.0155.02)

Robert Ricks, chief National Weather Service forecaster, anxiously watched computer maps of Hurricane Katrina’s movement along the Gulf of Mexico from his post at the Slidell, Louisiana, weather station on August 28, 2005. He was responsible for composing a weather alert that would predict the Hurricane’s severe impact—in his words, “a most powerful hurricane with unprecedented strength”—and sought comfort during the stressful moments that day and the days after using this Catholic rosary given to him by his grandmother.

Rosary with metal crucifix and black beads. Circular and rectangular medals are positioned regularly along the chain.
Family heirlooms come in all shapes and sizes, including rosaries. For weather forecaster Robert Ricks, this rosary, given to him by his grandmother, was a key source of solace and security. For many, rosaries are passed down through generations, taking on meaning as more hands touch and pray with the same beads, knots, and seeds. (2006.0220.01)

But not all rosaries take on meaning because of situations of stress and struggle. Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, American composer, pianist, and jazz band leader, adhered to no religious denomination, but his unique type of faith focused on personal, political, and moral freedom was a critical part of his music. Although he did not identify as Catholic or Episcopalian, two of the largest American religious groups who use rosaries, he did use this one with bright blue beads along a string with knots tied between different decades. Normally, rosaries have beads or knots, instead of a mix of the two, which makes this rosary unique. 

Rosary with a metal cross and aqua blue beads. Knots are tied in between sets of one, three, and ten.
This rosary once belonged to Duke Ellington, famed musician and composer, serving as one tangible piece of Ellington’s complex religious identity and expression. (1989.0369.287)

As these rosaries show, the physicality of religion—the objects that people hold, burn, bury, and worship—are critical to understanding the history of what it has meant to be religious in America. Where and why each rosary in the museum’s collection was used speaks to the importance of the “bits and bobs” of religion—the objects that solidify a transcendent faith in the physical field—and their collection by a museum interested in religion’s history.

Emma Cieslik (she/her) is an intern in the museum’s Office of Curatorial Affairs, working with the new Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History. She is a graduate of Ball State University with a degree in public history, biology, and anthropology, and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Museum Studies at George Washington University.