Normally, the crucifix crafted by Jim Gardner hangs in a chapel at St. Florian Parish in West Milwaukee.
The evening Gardner was interviewed in mid-July, however, the crucifix was a couple of miles away — at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in West Allis.
At his home, St. Florian parishioner Gardner, 59, told your Catholic Herald he’d entered the cross in the fair’s intarsia – a wood inlaying process – competition. The piece earned a blue ribbon, which will be displayed next to the cross during the fair’s Aug. 1-11 run.
Intarsia, explained the four-decade hobbyist woodworker who displayed an envelope full of award ribbons, “is an art,” but “not a common art,” he said, adding it’s not possible to just go to the store and buy an item like the crucifix he made for his parish.
Gardner equated intarsia to “stained glass in wood, only with 3D effect.” In the case of his crucifix, he noted, the corpus consists of 97 pieces and seven wood types. Although the corpus appears to have been painted or stained, the wood colors are natural; the intarsia artist applied seven coats of a hand-rubbed urethane gel similar to varnish, whose density he compared to that of whipped butter.
Although virtually the same size as the 3 feet x 5 feet cross to which it is attached, the body has a thickness of only about seven-eighths of an inch.
Gardner agreed with a reporter’s suggestion that his crafting of the crucifix was a labor of love for his parish. He’s belonged to St. Florian for some 35 years, beginning as a West Milwaukee resident and continuing after he moved to New Berlin. Depending on what route they drive to the Saturday afternoon Mass they typically attend at St. Florian, Jim and wife Gloria might pass as many as four or five Catholic churches, he said.
“We love the parish,” Gardner said of St. Florian, “because it’s small and you know everybody. You’re not a number.”
Gardner’s parish activities have included being on the council, ushering and serving as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, while Gloria – whose hobby is quilting – has been a lector.
Growing up in West Allis, Gardner attended grade school and served Mass at Holy Assumption. The priests who are, respectively, pastor and associate pastor at St. Florian, Carmelite Frs. David Centner and Ralph-Elias Haddix, also staff Holy Assumption.
Intrigued by a crucifix sketch he saw in an intarsia newsletter some years ago, Gardner bought the pattern and replicated it with wood purchased from Kettle Moraine Hardwoods, Inc. The beneficiary of Gardner’s grinding, planing and sanding is the chapel adjoining St. Florian’s main church, where only a small cross was in use.
Gardner’s project, a spare time endeavor in that Gardner still works full time for the City of West Allis in street and sewer maintenance, and was sidelined by a total knee replacement for part of 2012, consumed an estimated 400 hours over a three-year period.
“He bonded with Jesus quite a bit,” Gloria said with a chuckle, echoing a line her husband sometimes used when leaving the dinner table for his basement workshop. The project concluded in March.
In an email to your Catholic Herald, Fr. Centner wrote, “When Russell Miller, our trustee, told me about the crucifix that Jim was ‘carving,’ I was intrigued, but also cautious. Nowadays it is so hard to find a really beautiful crucifix and I was afraid to get my hopes up too high. When Jim and Gloria invited us (Frs. Centner and Haddix) to dinner to see the almost finished piece I didn’t know what to expect. The house was decorated with many beautiful (intarsia) works he had done and they amazed me. So I knew this crucifix would be special. All the same, I wasn’t prepared for what Jim showed me in his workshop.”
According to Fr. Centner, Gardner finished the crucifix before Holy Week and it was blessed at Mass the weekend of Palm Sunday. On Good Friday, it was used for the veneration, he added.
“It not only moved people to devotion; it proved to be ideal for the liturgy. After Holy Week, we enthroned it on the wall in the chapel we use for daily Mass,” wrote Fr. Centner.
“Jim has helped remind us of Christ crucified in an age when people so easily forget what our salvation cost the Lord. He keeps before us the truth that St. Teresa of Jesus wrote for her sons and daughters in Carmel: ‘Keep your eyes fixed on the crucified. Then everything will be small for you,’” the priest wrote.
Even though the crucifix is temporarily at the fairgrounds, the pastor added that the folks in his congregation “miss it. It speaks to them.”
Gardner’s next project may be a smaller crucifix for St. Agnes Church in Amberg in the Green Bay Diocese, where he and Gloria worship when spending weekends at their vacation cabin.
As for the response to the crucifix at St. Florian, well, the tears of appreciation Gardner’s seen in the eyes of elderly parishioners from the time of that Palm Sunday Mass probably have said it all, he said.