Henry Wichert used to teach machining to students at Kelsey. In retirement, he took up woodworking, and one of his favourite things to craft is holding crosses.
The crosses are small, about 7.5 x 5 cm or 3 x 1 3/4-inch, made of wood, with edges rounded and arms slightly askew — a perfect fit for the human hand.
Wichert began making the crosses at the suggestion of a pastor friend who read an article in a religious newspaper about a chaplain who distributed holding crosses to patients in hospitals.
Wichert liked the idea and designed a template. He began making little wooden holding crosses for LutherCare chaplains, and soon the crosses were in high demand. Wichert got his woodworking friend, Jerry German, involved and together, he estimates, they have made several thousand crosses, mostly from aromatic cedar.
“We have one rule,” he says. “The crosses are never to be sold. They’re a ministry tool.”
No one is exactly sure where the idea for holding crosses came from, but a whole lore of first-hand stories has grown up around them. In one, the husband of a lady in a coma tucked a holding cross in her hand. At some point, a nurse took it out of her hand and put it on her bedside table. When the lady came out of the coma, the first thing she said was: “Where’s my holding cross?”
Ross Vollmer is another woodcrafter who makes holding crosses. The retired Loreburn area farmer says he’d rather be in his woodworking shop making crosses than at the coffee shop any day of the year.
Vollmer has been making holding crosses for several years now, and got started in the endeavour at the request of LutherCare Chaplain Rev. Ron Bestvater. “I’m proud to help Ron with this,” he says, “and hope I can keep on doing it.”
Vollmer uses a variety of woods for his crosses, but his favourites are those found close to home — “good old chokecherry; and caragana, which has a beautiful purple centre; apple and crabapple; buckthorn and Manchurian elm.”
He’s always on the lookout for unusual woods and has made crosses from rosewood, teak, mahogany, yellow canary wood, and more.
“Our son lives in Whitehorse where he builds log houses and cuts his own firewood. On one occasion, I went out with him to cut firewood. There’s a lot of Sitka spruce and hemlock there, but the spruce is too plain for crosses. We came across a thick-trunked chokecherry tree that was too crooked for lumber, but it was perfect for the short lengths I need to make crosses. It also has a very nice grain.”
Vollmer cuts his wood into 3/8-inch thick slabs, traces the holding cross pattern onto the wood, and cuts out the shapes with a coping saw. A belt sander does the initial sanding; a router takes off the corners.
“Then, on a cold day, I get a fire going in the wood-burning cook stove in my shop, open the oven, pull up a chair and put my feet up on the oven door with a cat or two on my lap, and give the crosses a hand-sanding.”
Ross then rubs the crosses with tung oil, an edible product from the seed of the tung tree.
“Because of the lovely grains in wood, no two crosses are exactly alike,” he says. “Like people and snowflakes. And working with the wood always makes me think of the poem I memorized in school many, many years ago: ‘I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree…A tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray….Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.’”
Vollmer says making holding crosses is more than a hobby for him. It’s more like a ministry, because he’s making something from which another person will benefit.
He hasn’t kept count, but knows he’s given Ron Bestvater anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 crosses. The chaplain isn’t the only recipient. Relatives, fellow congregation members, friends and friends of friends ask for and receive crosses.
“A young woman from our church was going on a mission trip and wanted 60 or 70 to give away,” Vollmer says. “My optometrist said he was going to Ukraine. I noticed he was wearing a cross, so I asked if I could give him a holding cross. He was grateful. He said he was going to the embassy in Ukraine to see if he could get his wife to Canada, and would be holding the cross all the way.”
Ross’s wife Gerri says, “The crosses have come to mean more and more as time goes on, because it’s all about Jesus and the significance of the cross.”