COLUMBIA CITY — Through living a lifetime submerged in the world of art, retired Indian Springs Middle School art teacher Mary Hilger managed to create her most meaningful and graceful work after the tragic passing of her husband, John.

Hilger was awarded a $12,000 grant from the Lily Foundation a year before her planned retirement, which she planned to use being a student rather than a teacher.

Hilger felt that she had never been a good writer and wanted to study the world of literacy to expand on her creative gifts. She thought of art and writing as separate divisions, and it wasn’t until she actually wrote her books that she thought of them both as creating something beautiful.

Initially, Hilger proposed to study a few months’ worth of classes and attend a writing conference in Italy, conclusively bringing her newfound skills home with her to write two books.

One book would be an art literacy journal, combining her God-given art talent with her newly studied writing talent.

The second book would inscribe her art ministry work, an idea that was inspired by her husband.

Following his Parkinson’s diagnosis, Hilger’s husband became a deacon. She believes the diagnosis humbled him — that is, slowed him down and allowed him to truly see things and to take them in.

Hilger’s husband passed while on a trip in Germany, but not before he was brought back from cardiac arrest and had time to see his daughters. She believes this was “part of God’s plan for our six daughters to be there with him.”

“He died the way he lived, surrounded by family,” she said.

Originally, it was a bucket-list trip when Hilger set out with her husband. However, John passed before the boat left the port.

Following his passing, the family took the trip to Germany, only this time in memorial of John, something that would have made him happy, they hoped.

“He just believed in family so much,” Hilger said.

The passing of her husband was crippling and uprooting. And as with most unexpected tragedies in life, it derailed her plans and proposed books.

When Hilger finally took her Italy trip, she knew she could not write the art ministry book she proposed, but instead needed to write about the loss of her late husband.

“Finding Beauty in Ashes,” one of Hilger’s two books, helped her “push through the grief,” she said.

“It helped me realize that it (the loss of her husband) really happened,” Hilger said.

The book stresses the importance of faith — not just Hilger’s Catholic faith but the idea of belief and the concept of all faiths being equal. She never intended to write a book like this, but she felt that it was the only thing she could write about.

Hilger emphasized how cathartic the writing process was for her. She knew art and came to know writing, and the combination of the two provided her with the ability to shape a work of depth and passion from the tragedy that she lived.

One reader told her, “Your book made me smile. It made me cry. It made me think. And it made me pray.”

It took Hilger one year to write the 334-page book, but at the end of the process she managed to create beauty in the ashes.

“I’ll never be over the loss of John but I can keep praying through it, and leaning on God, and feeling John’s presence,” Hilger said.

“Finding Beauty in Ashes” can be ordered directly though her, and is also available at the Christian store, All Saints. Hilger eventually plans to sell on Amazon, but wants to take small steps exposing the literary journey of how she is healing.