Blest Art sells religious artwork to benefit Christians in Palestine

BELOIT, Wis. — For parishioners and pastors in the Diocese of La Crosse, Jeryes Qumseya may not be a household name, but his products are doubtless in more than a few households in the diocese.

Crafted by one of the many Catholic Palestinian carvers who work with Blest Art, a religious goods company in Beloit, Wis., this replica of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem carved out of olive wood is among artwork available for sale through Blest Art's founder Jeryes Qumseya. (CNS photo/Joseph O'Brien, The Catholic Times)

Crafted by one of the many Catholic Palestinian carvers who work with Blest Art, a religious goods company in Beloit, Wis., this replica of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem carved out of olive wood is among artwork available for sale through Blest Art’s founder Jeryes Qumseya. (CNS photo/Joseph O’Brien, The Catholic Times)

Even as the number of Christians living in the Middle East, and especially the Holy Land, continue to dwindle, Qumseya hopes to be able to get into even more households with religious artwork, including statues and other religious objects, hand-carved from olive wood and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, silver-faced icons and hand-made rosaries.

By selling these products to Catholics, he also hopes to help alleviate the plight of Holy Land Christians.

The founder and owner of Blest Art religious goods company, Qumseya has built up a business based on trust and dignity for his family and countless families back in his native Palestine.

Originally hailing from Beit Sahour (Aramaic for “Shepherd’s Field”) near Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, Qumseya has been a wood carver since learning the craft in the early 1960s. He also serves as deputy chairman of the Traditional Industries Association in Palestine and founder of the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society in 1979.

The cooperative was formed as a way to benefit Christian workers in the country and more efficiently sell their wares on the world market, and from it sprang his U.S. business: Blest Art.

Receiving the goods from Christian woodworkers in Palestine, Qumseya sells them for the craftsmen in the United States by setting up a display table with products for sale in parishes and for other Catholic groups and organizations.

In the 1990s, Qumseya came to the United States and settled in southern Wisconsin to be near his son, who was attending college in Beloit at the time.

In the 2000s, a new cycle of violence in the Holy Land caused the tourism industry to collapse, leaving many Christian families with no source of income and no choice but to leave.

“The main idea was to start a new and reliable market for our products away from the Holy Land, which would serve as a substitute market to the local one in times of instability,” Qumseay told The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse. “In this way, they could protect the very last Christian minority in the Holy Land … the very first defense line of the Christian faith worldwide.”

According to Qumseya, the United States was the most likely choice for a foreign market because he found a strong Catholic identity here.

“I came to the U.S. because with a stronger faith, there is a stronger market,” he said.

Qumseya is passionate about his art — and about making clear that Blest Art is not charity organization — but strictly business, although certainly a business with a good cause attached.

By hawking the carvers’ wares in the United States, Qumseya is privileged not to give handouts but to lend a hand up to the world’s “original Christians,” that is, his fellow Christians of the Holy Land, exchanging rewarding and edifying work for a just wage whereby these carvers can support themselves and their families.

“We need to live in dignity,” he said. “We don’t take donations. You work, you get something for your work; you give something, we give something. Yes, I need everyone to understand that we don’t accept donations.”

Now-retired Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah sent a letter of recommendation on Qumseya’s behalf to bishops in the Unites States, who in turn received the carver and recommended him to their pastors and other fellow bishops.

When Blest Art is invited into a parish, with the permission of both the bishop and the pastor, Qumseya said, the sales representative introduces the program after Communion during Mass with a brief letter written by Qumseya, outlining the dire situation of Christians in the Holy Land, who now make up less than 1 percent of the population there.

“For the Palestinian Christians living in the Bethlehem area in Jerusalem, the land is very tight and there is no land left after all the settlements are built, and there’s no place even to do agriculture,” he told The Catholic Times. “After the 1967 (Six Day) War, the land has become like a desert on the West Bank, especially in the Bethlehem area. It became a desert, in general; the trees bring water, but we don’t have any trees left because of the wars — war after war after war.”

The impact on the region’s Christian population is dramatic, Qumseya said.

“In 1967, we had 75,000 Christian people living in Jerusalem,” he said. “Shouldn’t this number go up in almost 50 years — to perhaps 300,000? The church’s statistics put the people left in Jerusalem at about 10,000 in 2009. Today, how many do you think we have today? We have, in fact, only 4,000 people.”

Pruned from olivewood trees after harvest time, the olivewood products are examples of a craft which can be traced back centuries among Bethlehem’s Christians, Qumseya said. Many of the other materials used in the crafts are also native to the Holy Land too, he added.

While customers might pay more for Blest Art products than they would otherwise for religious artwork, Qumseya said the Catholicism, craftsmanship and commitment that inspires each piece is a far cry cheaply made products, like items made in China.

The bottom line for Blest Art is the security and happiness of the families who carve the work, Qumseya said.

“Our concern is the common good of our families, which means paying them what they deserve for their time and compassion and not taking advantage of their need,” he said. They are our most valuable, irreplaceable asset.”