MANITOWOC — Pocket crosses may be small, but Dan Czekala and his wife, Gen, can attest they have a big impact.
About two and a-half years ago, Czekala’s brother, Richard, was battling stage 4 lung cancer. During a chemotherapy session at Holy Family Memorial, a woman whose husband was also undergoing chemotherapy gave Richard a pocket cross.
“At the time, (Dan) was grieving over his brother and saw how much the cross his brother received had meant to him and his family,” Gen said. “That really inspired him.”
“I thought, ‘I could make those. I can do something nice like that and comfort people, too,’” he said. “So I started making them.”
Dan, 78, has crafted more than 200 pocket crosses in his basement workshop, having distributed more than 160 over the past two-plus years.
The crosses are about 3 inches long, so he’s able to tightly arrange the pattern on an 8-foot board and cut out 45 at a time using a scroll saw. They’re painstakingly sanded smooth and given three coats of varnish. Each cross takes about 40 minutes to create, translating to more than 130 total hours so far.
“I enjoy making them, but my fingers aren’t like they used to be,” Dan said. “So when I get tired I stop for a while and go back to it when they’re ready.
“But I won’t stop making them. It makes me feel good to do this, knowing they mean something to people,” he added. “Seeing how much people appreciate them makes me want to keep making more.”
Dan’s pocket crosses have been passed out to fellow parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi in Manitowoc, as well as family, friends and people he meets.
The first cross he created was given to a friend. “She was in her mid-50s and she was dying from cancer,” Dan said, his voice cracking with emotion. “At her funeral, in the casket, she was holding that cross.”
Crosses also went to a couple in Appleton with whom he was friends. The wife, who had cancer, died. “The first thing, when we went to her funeral, my friend showed me his cross and said, ‘I still keep her cross under her pillow,’” said Dan.
Yet another cross went to a person he met while shopping.
“I was in Menards and a kid in his 20s came up to me and he asked me about my arm,” Dan said, explaining to the young man that he recently had rotator cuff surgery. “What surprised me was when he said, ‘Can I pray over you?’ I said, ‘Sure,’” said Dan. “I was in shock that somebody would do that. I told Gen I had to find that guy. So I found him and gave him a cross. He was so thankful.”
Dan also sent three pocket crosses and a letter to President Donald Trump, his wife, Melania, and their son, Barron. The letter said, in part, “They are intended to give you comfort, strength and courage for the difficult times in life’s journey.” In return, the Czekalas received a thank-you correspondence from the White House.
Each of the pocket crosses Dan distributes has been blessed by a priest. And each comes with a piece of paper with words about pocket crosses he received from a religious sister at church one morning.
The paper says, in part, “When I put my hand in my pocket to bring out a coin or key, the cross is there to remind me of the price (Jesus) paid for me.”
Dan was born and raised in Manitowoc, where he attended St. Mary Parish and served as an altar server. He also attended St. Mary School. St. Mary’s later became part of St. Francis of Assisi.
“My dad never had a car, so the family always walked the mile and a-half to church,” Dan said. “It didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing.”
After graduating from Manitowoc Lincoln High School, Dan enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for three years as a helicopter mechanic. He worked 32 years for the City of Manitowoc Parks and Recreation Department, where he honed his woodworking skills. He also worked for a lumber company many years ago.
Dan and Gen recently celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. Gen grew up on a cherry orchard near Sturgeon Bay and was a member of St. Joseph Parish. She came to Manitowoc in 1960 and joined St. Paul Parish. She became a registered nurse in 1963 and met Dan after he had been in a car accident.
“My wife and I pray for all the people who we give the crosses to,” Dan said. “We want them to feel comfort.”