Women put talents to work to make vestments for Oshkosh priests

Marian vestment completed in time for feast of Assumption

OSHKOSH — Clothes can make the man — or the priest.

Two members of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish have found that their talents can make a unique contribution to their parish. What started out as one good act has revealed a great need for many priests.

Susan Kerr volunteered her talent in machine stitching embroidery work to revive a Marian vestment appliqué for Fr. Doug LeCaptain, pastor at St. Raphael the Archangel Parish in Oshkosh. Catherine Ellenbecker, a St. Raphael parishioner, oversaw the vestment project. (Jeannette Merten | For The Compass)

When the recently ordained Fr. Michael Warden was assigned to the parish in 2013, he had a challenge. He is 6 feet, 6 inches tall, and chasubles generally are created for much shorter priests. A custom one would have been prohibitively expensive.

Fr. Warden’s mother had died before his ordination. Parishioner Catherine Ellenbecker also had recently lost her mother, Mary Wendt Riedl, who had been instrumental in helping Ellenbecker procure a fine arts scholarship to Mount Mary University in Milwaukee. Ellenbecker went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Mount Mary and a master’s degree in art from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“I asked Fr. Warden if I could create a Marian vestment set for him in memory of his mother and all mothers,” Ellenbecker said.

Fr. Warden gave her many guidelines: St Andres cross, lilies and oval Madonna emblem, lightweight damask fabric, etc. He suggested she consult with the church supply store, T. H. Stemper Co., in Milwaukee.

She drove to Milwaukee, studied some of the vestments at Stempers and got a catalog for the Belgium vestments, Slabbinck. She also did a lot of research on the Internet.

“Instead of painting the design onto the fabric like it was originally, I teamed up with Susan Kerr, another parishioner, who is proficient at computer embroidery,” Ellenbecker said. “The drawings were converted to thread colors, texture pattern and alignment and embroidered on panels of sapphire blue Dupioni silk, and then hand-sewn to ivory silk damask.”

Kerr has owned an industrial-type embroidery machine since 2000 and has done work for many local businesses. Now 71 and going through breast cancer, she just does smaller jobs here and there and was happy to agree to the vestment project.

“Katherine has a way about her,” Kerr said with a smile. “It doesn’t seem like that much of a deal until I got into it. I said I’d do it. You do a lot of praying over it and hoping it will turn out all right. It was satisfying. I wanted to do something for the church. If it’s something I can do, I don’t mind. It turned out beautifully and very nice. They seemed pleased with it, and that was the important thing.”

Fr. Warden shared his enthusiasm with other priests, and soon Fr. Doug LeCaptain, pastor of St. Raphael Parish, was interested.

Ellenbecker and her husband Tom adopted their special needs grandson, Jo, age 10. His sister, Kyla, 9, attends religious education classes at St. Raphael. After class, Jo and Kyla were talking with Fr. LeCaptain when he jokingly asked, “When is your grandma going to make me a Marian vestment?”

“Kyla relayed the request a hundredfold,” Ellenbecker said.

Kathleen Donnelly of the UW-Oshkosh theater department had given a donated vestment to St. Raphael’s, and now the parish offered that vestment to Ellenbecker for redesigning and reconstruction.

“So without much hesitation I started a project … without telling Fr. Doug or Fr. Michael,” Ellenbecker said. “I started with text of the Magnificat as written by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. It was divided into segments which would be computer-embroidered.”

Ellenbecker carefully dismantled the castoff vestment, saving color swatches, medallions and a Marian painted-motif.

“I searched the Internet for fabric worthy of a Marian tribute,” she said. “I found $300-a-yard ‘liquid gold silk’ with a reversible gold-crème pattern and a shade of Lyons blue Dupioni silk.” She was unable to use the star motifs from the old vestment because they were rusted. Stars of a similar size and shape were embroidered by Kerr.

Fr. LeCaptain said the project was an important contribution to the parish “because we did not have a specific Mary vestment,” he said. “It’s a nice connection to history to use the image from that vestment. It’s the old and the new coming together. Like it says in Matthew 13:52: ‘Every scribe (can) bring from his storeroom both the new and the old’ – the old image needing the new vestment.”

He said the vestment will be used on all Marian feast days, including the Aug. 14 evening Mass for the feast of the Assumption.

Ellenbecker’s mission continues. She recently met with Fr. Tim Renz from St. John the Baptist Parish in Montello, in the Diocese of Madison. “I am finishing a 1.5-ton, three-figure, life-size bronze sculpture for the Montello community,” Ellenbecker said. “Fr. Tim … showed me a storage closet of vestments so stained, rotted or discolored they were unusable.”

He asked Ellenbecker to remodel a heavy, dark green velveteen Roman chasuble into a lightweight bright green one for Mass in ordinary times.

“I brought it home and gingerly took it apart, down to the horse-hair lining,” Ellenbecker said. “The Roman chasuble is very, very short, so I spliced areas of the former back and front together to create a full-length cross.”

Fr. Renz has invited Ellenbecker to update a red chasuble next, and then to work on a purple one. “Time will tell if I can get the challenge done,” she said.