GREENFIELD, Mass. — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once wrote that “the only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”
Chris Opalenik; his wife, Cindy, and her sister Susie McCrea seem to have combined both. Their new business, November Partners, seeks to bring together the spiritual beauty of saints with well-crafted dolls suitable for the centerpiece of a home shrine or as a child's keepsake.
Hoping to play a small role in the evangelization of American culture, the Opaleniks and McCrea are part of a burgeoning Catholic cottage industry offering products Catholic families can be happy with.
That's becoming increasingly important for Christians disgusted with the commercialization of Christmas and seeking to reorient gift-giving to reflect Christian charity.
“While all the saints are alike in their profound love for God and neighbor, they differ profoundly in just about everything else: some were poor, others rich, some beautiful, others not so; some devoted to the elderly, others to children,” says the Greenfield, Mass., company's website. “In short, they were and are an incredibly diverse lot. Like all of us made in the image and likeness of God, they were each of them distinct. An original.”
November Partners' “Original Saints” dolls are, they suggest, “companions in prayer.” The creators hope to inspire people to emulate the saints by providing a short history of the saint, his or her patronage and a prayer along with each doll.
While many dolls on the market feature the same basic mold for face and figure, the Original Saints will all be recognizably different. The first line available includes Mary, Queen of Saints, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Jude, St. Anthony, St. Therésé and St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients.
Painter and sculptor Matthew Brooks has done numerous works for churches around the country, but he is also committed to restoring sacred art to Catholic homes.
“This is an image-based society,” Brooks said. “They come at us so fast.” As an antidote to bombardment with secular and immoral images, Brooks says, “You've got to bring a tangible presence of Christ, Our Lady and the saints into our lives, especially the lives of children.”
Brooks contracted with Larry Kampmeier, a California craftsman, to produce tiles that feature his work. But Brooks will also paint a one-of-a-kind image for the family home, a process involving the family that can be a catalyst for its spiritual growth.
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One young family, for example, detailed what they wanted their painting of the Blessed Virgin to look like. Then, as a family, they prayed and fasted and made other sacrifices in preparation for the Virgin's arrival.
“If the whole family participates in bringing an image into the home, it becomes more palpable; it becomes something more than just an image on the wall,” says Brooks.
Regarding the family involvement in the process, he notes, “It's a way to create a reality that stays with children. Somebody said that the best example you can give your children is to get on your knees in front of them.”
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Bosco Toys: www.boscotoys.com
Something for children that parents can feel good about is the product line of Bosco Toys. Started by David and Chris Fisk in 1997, the company now operates out of Elkton, Fla., producing hand-crafted wooden toys with Biblical themes. They offer a Noah's Ark complete with pairs of animals, a King David's Harp that kids can actually play, and wooden puzzles depicting the lives of Christ and the Holy Family, among other products.
Inspired by St. John Bosco, patron saint of youth, Bosco Toys aims “to bring the simple joy of the Gospel to children through the toys they play with.” The Fisks have drawn on their experience with their own children in selecting the toys they craft. David Fisk tells how they decided to create the harp.
“Our daughter was playing with scraps from the puzzle-making process; she had my wife string up a harp out of a piece of wood, and she was walking around saying she was playing King David's harp. So I went online and found the prettiest harp I could find, took that image and turned it into a toy.”
In the early days, Fisk hand-cut everything. He has since automated the cutting process with computerized equipment and has mastered computer-aided design.
“St. Augustine said, ‘He who sings, prays twice.’ John Paul II says, ‘A child who sings, prays three times,’” said Fisk, who believes that capturing a child's imagination when it is at its most active is important in teaching. “I say that a child who has simple, holy play prays four times.”
John Moorehouse is the editor of Catholic Men's Quarterly.