Many Catholic businesses are more than a business. Thanks to their owners, they witness to the faith and help to spread Catholic truths.
One such business is Nelson Fine Arts and Gifts in Steubenville, Ohio (NelsonGifts.com). Mark and Gretchen Nelson started it in 1994, offering just one item. Today, their company offers 25,000 products, from fine art to t-shirts and other household items.
Before the business began, Mark Nelson was using his woodworking talent, which he learned from his father in their home workshop, to help a friar at Franciscan University make San Damiano crucifixes.
After a five-year hiatus, during which Mark and Gretchen met and married while they both were involved as full-time pro-life missionaries, they had the opportunity to purchase the machinery used to make the San Damiano crucifix. Working from their garage, the Nelsons quickly expanded to 14 products. Their first customer was Franciscan University’s bookstore.
"We quickly realized the need to establish a much wider distribution and product line — and the rest is history," Mark Nelson said. Mother Angelica and EWTN Religious Catalogue became the Nelsons’ earliest customers.
Those early products fulfilled the company’s goals to provide people with goods to inspire and deepen their love for the Catholic faith.
What’s more, the Nelsons were making sure their products were made with care and attention to detail.
Today, in the company’s headquarters — located in a former school building that also houses the showroom and offices — there are more workshops, where the extensive product line is handcrafted by highly skilled craftspeople.
Right after their start, "we looked at how to use modern technology to help promote the Gospel," Nelson said, explaining how he and Gretchen "took to heart" the words of John Paul II when they saw him at World Youth Day in Denver: to "not be afraid to go out into the streets and into public places" and proclaim the Gospel.
"Those words stuck with us and continue to motivate us to this day," Nelson explained.
In 2002, the Nelsons gained added motivation to evangelize through their company in conjunction with World Youth Day in Toronto.
As Nelson explained, "With a whole lot of prayer and creative financing, we put together 5,000 t-shirts: the one featuring John Paul II as a young priest wearing sunglasses and beret with the logo ‘Pope on a Mission.’ We presented the kids a youthful image of our Holy Father, a vibrant Holy Father now at the end of living the Gospel to the max. It was fully Catholic living."
The youth attending World Youth Day made the t-shirt an instant hit. That was the launch of Catholic to the Max, a lifestyle brand from the company with its own website (CatholictotheMax.com).
As Nelson put it, "Faith wear is a reminder of what you believe in or a saint who is a hero to you. We began to create beautiful artwork for the common man, not just for inside church. We responded to the New Evangelization in that way, and we’re also honored to be part of this Year of Faith in this way."
The extensive t-shirt line — 250 in all — gave the Nelsons the way to go back to their original pro-life mission of spreading the message of love for life at all stages, from the "Cradle Catholic" baby wear on up.
With 20 employees, including three of the Nelsons’ eight children (all are home-schooled by Gretchen), the company also does much custom work, from kneelers, reliquaries and popular outdoor European-style shrines to patriotic items on FreedomtotheMax.com, all handcrafted in the company workshops.
2008 was a special year for the company.
"In 2008, we were blessed with the opportunity to design, manufacture and sell the entire product line for Pope Benedict’s visit to Washington, D.C.," recalled Nelson. "The archdiocese chose us not just because of the modern look to our products, but the reverent design that our products also had. It wasn’t just a souvenir, but a souvenir with a prayer, a message or a quote from Benedict. It was a huge honor for our company to be able to serve the Church in that way."
Seraphym Designs (SeraphymDesigns.com) in Oak Hills, Calif., is a Catholic enterprise on a smaller scale. "Seraphym Designs has always been more than a business," owner Arasely Chelsea Rios explained.
She began making rosaries as a hobby to give away to family and friends.
"As I make the rosary, I always incorporate prayer into it," she explained. "I may be saying some Hail Marys as I’m touching the beads or wiring them together."
All of her rosaries are made with a variety of bead colors and designs.
An Arizona metalsmith hand-casts all the crucifixes and medals from solid bronze or sterling silver, with some in gold. They are replicas of designs that date back from the 15th-20th centuries.
While she has devoted herself to making these heirloom-quality rosaries for more than 15 years, Rios started making rosaries when she was just 8, while staying at a family friend’s house. She helped the family make rosaries for the local church. "I remember instantly feeling excited about the idea," Rios said.
Years later, Rios’ mother took a rosary-making class at church, where she learned the standard way, using wire pins. Naturally, she also wanted to learn the technique from her mother.
"The very next day, my search for prettier, more exotic beads began," Rios recalled.
"But there’s more than just an aesthetic quality to it," she explained. "A more important reason behind my love of making rosaries is due to my prayerful upbringing. I grew up in a family who prayed the Rosary every night. As a child, it was difficult for me to kneel and pray the Rosary every single night before bed, yet, to this day, I still remember how a deeper sense of love, forgiveness and peace enveloped our hearts and our home after each Rosary. Worries, disagreements and fears seemed to disappear, and the warmth of love enveloped us all."
Today, customers write to tell her their faith and love for Jesus and Mary has blossomed and deepened, and they’re more inspired to pray the Rosary.
"Through time, the faithful will season each bead with prayers and intentions of joy, gratitude, hope and lamentations that come from the deepest core of their hearts," Rios explained.
"Each bead," she envisioned, "will be engraved with the deepest love for Christ and the deepest respect for Mary."
Rios named Seraphym Designs after the choir of seraphim angels in Isaiah 6:2-3. "I love the name. They praise God all day long. It’s all about prayer," she emphasized. "Every time we’re praying the Rosary, we’re praising God and honoring Mary."
That’s who Rios credits for her business and ministry. "This is about Christ and the Holy Spirit moving Seraphym Designs. It’s miraculous to me how it started to grow just out of my faith and love in making rosaries. I owe it all to God. I am so blessed God has gifted me with the ability to make these rosaries."
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.