As if peeling an orange, Fr. Fellenz uses his thumbs to remove layers of unwanted wood from the flashlight-battery-sized block of black walnut, revealing a delicate Christmas ornament.
It’s a procedure Fr. Fellenz has repeated hundreds of times in the past, but each time is a surprise, said the retired Capuchin friar who turns out decorations in the workshop of St. Fidelis Friary, a retirement community in Appleton.
“I’m very much surprised every time I finish cutting an ornament. Sometimes you can’t believe it,” Fr. Fellenz said. “I’ll glue together different pieces of scrap wood and see what happens. Sometimes I have a vision for what I would like to see and other times I’ll use established patterns, but the result is always a surprise.”
Fr. Fellenz, 71, is a native of St. Michaels, located near Kewaskum, and spent most of his life as a Capuchin missionary in Central America, mostly in Honduras, where he also dabbled in woodworking.
“My grandfather was a cabinet maker. He always made little things from wood. I have two brothers who are also woodworkers. Every time they make something we’ll get together and critique their project to find out what is wrong with what they made,” Fr. Fellenz said.
He sees God’s work in the delicate ornaments he makes using a blade that is thinner than a playing card to carve intricate curves in various woods. “It’s fascinating how the ornaments come out,” Fr. Fellenz said. “God created the beauty of wood. He made the trees grow. I can manipulate it to take that beauty God made and make a showcase of it. Properly using something he made is very satisfying.”
Fr. Fellenz sees the concentration needed to make the ornaments — most cuts require the drilling of a tiny hole in which to insert the scroll saw blade — as an opportunity to converse with God.
“I feel closer to God doing things like this,” said Fr. Fellenz, who also transfers scraps of wood into stylized crucifixes. “These (pieces of wood) are things God made and working with them, to me, is like praying.”
Fr. Fellenz was ordained in 1968 in Marathon County, where the Capuchin order maintains a retreat center. After studying Spanish in Mexico, Fr. Fellenz, went to Nicaragua in 1969. He spent five years there before heading to Honduras, where he served for more than 20 years working with the Miskitu people, an indigenous group engaged primarily in farming and fishing.
“Those were the most wonderful years of my life,” Fr. Fellenz said. “It was very challenging getting to know the people and speak their language.”
Today he keeps busy at St. Fidelis Friary taking other residents to doctor appointments, shuttling visitors from the airport and helping out with chores. He also keeps the friary’s Christmas tree stocked with wooden ornaments, some cut with a scroll saw and others with a small wood-turning lathe.
“Woodworking satisfies me because I can do that and forget about everything else,” Fr. Fellenz said.
His favorite wood is whatever people donate to his small workshop, he said, but he expressed a fondness for black walnut as well as traditional walnut, oak and pine, purple heartwood, cherry and ebony.
The thin scroll saw blades maneuver through some types of woods better than others, a fact well known to Fr. Fellenz, who goes through an average of two of the $1.25 blades making each ornament.
Sometimes the ornaments break as they are being cut, especially if the cut is being made faster than necessary or with a dull blade, Fr. Fellenz said.
Fr. Fellenz just sets aside the broken ornaments that shop visitors treasure as souvenirs.
“Breaking an ornament is a part of being imperfect as a man. It’s frustrating when they break, especially when you are almost done. Usually I just put them aside, say ‘Praise the Lord’ and start over. You have to remain positive when you get older,” he said.
After sanding and a dip in teak oil, the ornaments are hung to dry, but Fr. Fellenz is always ready to make another.
The aroma of freshly-cut black walnut from the ornament in Fr. Fellenz’ hand raises his appetite to take another block of wood from the select scrap pile.
“I’ll never stop doing this,” he said.
Fr. Fellenz doesn’t sell his ornaments.
“I never sell anything. I just get enjoyment out of making them,” he said. “If someone said, ‘Make me one,’ I would feel obligated and it wouldn’t be fun anymore. This way I can work at my own pace and it may take me a year to finish one. If I find someone who really likes an ornament I give it to them because I know they will enjoy it.”