After Diane Fehrenbacher lost five family members and friends in 1982, she began to make rosaries out of funeral roses. The gentle activity helped, she found, in getting herself and other family members through the grieving process. That modest act of mercy has since touched thousands of people across the country.
Count Marlene Wilderman and her family among them. “When my dad, Leo, passed away in 2002, we saved the flowers' petals and ribbons,” she says. “He was a farmer, a wonderful person, everything for me. We wanted to save everything we could that was memorable.”
She had Fehrenbacher make rosaries for her mother, her five sisters and all the grandchildren. Wilderman's two small boys, 4 and 7, each got a one-decade finger rosary.
“Every time you finger those beads, the memories keep flooding back,” Wilderman continues. “It's beautiful. And when I pray the rosary, I offer it up for Dad.”
Fehrenbacher hears stories like this every day as she makes rosaries and other items for Heart Keepsakes, a prayer ministry as much as a cottage business run from her home in southwest Indiana.
Nor are the flower-fashioned rosaries limited to commemorating sad occasions. Fehrenbacher also works from the floral arrangements at weddings, first Communions and the like. And, for those special occasions at which people forget to save their flowers, she even makes items out of ribbon and cloth.
In one case, Fehrenbacher's daughter-in-law had her make rosaries from her grandfather's funeral flower ribbon. She intertwined the rosary in her bridal bouquet and after the wedding gave it to her grandmother.
In another, a family friend in Pennsylvania forgot to save the flowers from his father's funeral. Fehrenbacher asked for his dad's favorite shirt — a flannel one he wore while woodworking. She made a rosary from that shirt. A few months later, when the friend's mother was out visiting, their house burned to the ground, incinerating everything the man had carved.
“She was able to save the rosary,” Fehrenbacher says in amazement, because “it was in the house and in a plastic case.”
When ordering their heart keep-sakes, people always seem to write down the significance the flowers or the materials hold for them, Fehrenbacher explains. The notes help her stay focused on their reasons for requesting the items — and on her reasons for taking on the work.
One woman sent Fehrenbacher the first rose her husband gave her when they were dating. She had kept it pressed in her Bible for 50 years.
Fehrenbacher was able to make a fine rosary out of it.
Perhaps most important, every rosary is made with prayers from Fehrenbacher and, now, from the women who sign on to help with each project.
“I tell the ladies who it's for and who it's in remembrance of, and the women end up praying as we're making them,” Fehrenbacher says. “Our prayers are for the individuals and for the loved ones. It's a prayerful ministry.”
“Diane does beautiful workmanship on the rosaries. She makes each one with tender care,” says Father James Sauer from St. Joseph Church in Indiana. “She knows peoples' sufferings. It's a wonderful ministry as well.”
His own niece, Carri Alison, was killed in a car accident returning from a job fair in 1999. She was just 23 years old, had recently graduated from college and was looking forward to becoming a teacher. To help her many school friends at the funeral “remember Carri and that she is not truly dead but alive with God,” the priest says, he had Fehrenbacher make 15 rosaries. These he presented to Carri's family, her close friends and the pallbearers.
“The kids still talk about them, how they use them and how it reminds them of Carri,” Father Sauer says. “The important thing is it's a wonderful reminder that, although her life is ended in this world, she is not dead. I hope the rosaries that I gave the kids will remind them they're connected to her and she to them.”
Fehrenbacher's work has helped people from all 50 states plus Italy, Germany and South America.
When she first began, she found that the formulas in some books for turning roses into rosary beads didn't make for long-lasting rosaries. After some experimentation, she came up with her technique that not only produced durable beads but also produced beads that held the roses' scent and color for a long time.
“They'll last for generations,” Maureen Wilderman says. “I'm happy my kids and I can hand them down.”
Fehrenbacher's personal story is as moving as those connected with the rosaries she makes. She wasn't expected to live long after her birth. An enlarged thymus gland cut off her air supply whenever she cried or got excited. Doctors tried massive does of radiation to kill the thymus.
The radiation left her with problems that persist to this day. She's allergic to medicines and very few people with similar thymus problems have lived as long as she has. She was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, likely a product of the radiation; it's now in remission.
Despite this, a very cheerful Fehrenbacher has four healthy sons ages 17 to 28. Her 21-year-old is a seminarian studying to be a priest for the Diocese of Evansville, Ind.
“God has me here for a reason,” she says. “He's blessed me with a healthy family and the ability to minister to others.”
Including the non-Catholics who order rosaries and related items from her. She recently made one for a Jewish man whose wife was Catholic. Fehrenbacher finds this an opportunity to evangelize because she can tuck in material on how to pray the rosary.
Asked how her unique undertaking has affected her own walk with Christ, Fehrenbacher replies: “My faith has grown by leaps and bounds. It's not me bringing this peace to all these people — it's the Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary. I think the best word for me is humbled. It's humbling to be used as an instrument making people want to pray.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.