Over more than 100 years, thousands of people attended Mass at St. Mary Church in Melrose and sat in its oak pews, witnessing countless first Communions, weddings, confirmations and funerals, sharing laughter, tears, hellos and goodbyes.
So when longtime parishioner Gail Schlicht, a retired nurse, learned that the pews salvaged after the fire that tore through the church March 11, 2016, were not going to be reused in the renovation, she was eager to see if she could get some of the rescued wood on her lathe.
“This wood was within the walls of the fire and it was given new life in these bowls,” she said. “That’s my hope for the community.”
The 82-year-old Schlicht is an avid fisherwoman. Her love for this pastime led her to become a part of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association where she first saw a demonstration on how to use a wood lathe, a machine that is used to smooth and shape wood.
About 13 years ago, with instruction from a fellow fisherman, she began turning wood projects in her garage — a.k.a. woodshop.
As word traveled around St. Mary’s about her developing art, then-pastor Father Vince Lieser asked her to craft some bowls for use in the church.
“I told him I was still learning, to which he replied, ‘Well, learn fast!’” Schlicht recalled.
In 2015, the maintenance staff replaced a ladder that led to the bell towers at the parish. When Schlicht spotted the discarded ladder in the snow, she asked if she might have it to make into bowls.
From the ladder, which was made of pine, Schlicht created six shallow dishes which she donated to a St. Mary’s School fundraiser. On the bottom of each bowl, she carefully printed the words, “100-year-old pine from ladder that led to the bell tower, St. Mary’s Church, Melrose, MN. 2015.”
“Much to our surprise, the bowls went to six different people and each paid $185,” Schlicht said.
Recognizing how important it was for people to have pieces of history to hang on to, after the fire, Schlicht put her nose to the grindstone — or more aptly, her hands to the lathe — and started crafting bowls from the old pews.
Working with another parishioner and carpenter, Dave Berscheit, they removed the finish from the reclaimed wood with a planer, and Schlicht began the careful work of gluing together the small, narrow pieces of wood. Using a compass, she turned circles out of every possible inch.
To make each bowl, she places the glued block on her lathe and hits the switch. As the block wildly spins, her careful hands guide shaping tools gently across the surface, forming the bowl. She later sands and stains them, adding character to each one, and again prints neatly on the bottom of the bowl.
Saving even the smallest scraps from the already repurposed wood, Schlicht returns them to Berscheit who meticulously forms additional blocks for Schlicht to turn into a different style of equally stunning work called segmented bowls.
Metaphor for the community
To date, 35 bowls have been made in a myriad of distinctive shapes and sizes, each element bringing beauty to one cohesive piece. The bowls might just be a metaphor for the community itself.
“As Christians, we live the Paschal Mystery every day and part of living that Paschal Mystery means we have to let go of things so we can experience resurrection,” said Dawn Carrillo, director of faith formation and liturgy at St. Mary’s, as well as a close friend of Gail’s.
“Gail, like many in the community, is brokenhearted about what has happened to the church and is brokenhearted by the division in the community,” Carrillo said. “There’s deep pain on all sides. Her working with this wood and creating new life from it is, in a sense, resurrection — letting things go and watching them coming into the light, into the beauty of something whole.
“In her woodworking, sometimes the pieces don’t want to go together just right,” Carrillo continued. “But when she works with it with love and gentleness, she creates this beautiful bowl. Isn’t that what we are as a people? We all come in different shapes and sizes, with different backgrounds, different desires and different understandings, but we all come together as one people symbolized in the Eucharist.”
Schlicht hopes that by turning the pews into beautiful bowls, she might raise the spirits — as well as some funds — for St. Mary’s.
“We hope for a good financial outcome for the church from the bowls,” she said, “but most importantly, we hope that they get into the hands of people who appreciated our church, that it would remind them of the many sacraments received by people who sat in these pews, the fun times and sad times. These pews have gone from ashes to something beautiful and I believe our community will, too.”