Woodworker makes crosses from St. Mary wind damage

Published 12:28 am Wednesday, December 23, 2009

NATCHEZ — It all began with an act of God.

Straight-line winds tore through downtown Natchez in 1996, damaging homes, businesses and historic structures, and marring the cypress spires atop St. Mary Basilica.

The spires were replaced with stone pinnacles, and the remaining wooden, octagonal ones were taken down.

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And so they waited.

“I do a lot of the maintenance at the church, and the spires were stored in a garage,” Natchez resident Walter Maier said. “Eventually I moved them to my backyard, and they sat there for a while.”

The spires were original to the church, built in 1842, and Maier said when you take into consideration how long the cypress trees had to grow the wood he had was at least 200 years old.

Maier is woodworker, and has a shop full of woodcraft, but he didn’t do anything with the spires until last year, when someone asked him to make a simple wooden cross. It seemed like a perfect way to use the spires.

“You have eight sides to that sphere, and those long, pointed pieces of wood have upteen thousand nails in it,” he said. “I just have to rip it apart and cut the outer edges off of it to get to the inner wood.”

Once he gets to the inner wood, Maier cuts out his cross pieces and then cuts them to fit together.

But most of the work goes into making the old, tough wood smooth.

“I mostly do sanding,” he said. “After I got home yesterday, I sanded for five and a half hours on about 25 of them.”

He starts with a rough sander, finishes that and moves to a fine sander. From there, he hand-sands the crosses before giving them a lacquer finish.

The finished product is a plain, light brown cross that stands 16 inches tall and 9 inches wide.

“It seemed like a good way to use (the wood),” he said.

When Maier made his first few crosses last year, he gave them away to friends and church members.

This year, however, he’s made more and they are for sale at the St. Mary Basilica church office.

“There has been a high level of interest in them, and he has gone back to his workshop to make more,” St. Mary pastor the Rev. David O’Connor said. “The congregational response has exceeded our expectations.

“I think he initially thought he would make a few, give me one and give a few other people one and have four or five left over, but lo and behold, people started calling and coming by, asking where they could get one.”

The crosses are being sold for $30, and can be purchased in person at the church office, or can be reserved by phone at 601-445-5616.