SHAWANO — In what used to be the milk house on her family farm, Mary Lou Kugel dips a clean, soft yellow cloth into a container of Danish oil, then transfers the pungent compound onto the cross of an over-sized wooden rosary.
From the cross, she works her way up the one-and-one-half-inch-long rectangular beads, rubbing the oil thoroughly around each side, top and bottom, then moving on to the next and the next and the next.
By the time she’s done with the finishing, Kugel will have 28 wall-sized rosaries, each unique, ready to present as gifts — and for the special purpose that begat the rosary project in the first place.
“Last year we went down to the storage room at Sacred Heart Church in Shawano,” Kugel recalled, “and they had some pews and kneelers left from when the church was remodeled a few years ago.
“They needed the storage space, and my husband Chuck and I said we’d take the kneelers,” she said. “Chuck tinkers in woodworking, so we figured we’d use them for something. We made a donation to Sacred Heart School, and they were able to buy a new laminator.”
Although her family belongs to St. Martin of Tours Parish in Cecil, where she lectors and is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, Kugel is coordinator for the Rural Life Days celebration at the church in Shawano, which shares a priest with St. Martin, Fr. Thomas Farrell.
The Kugels retired in 2014 after running a 60-head dairy operation on their 158-acre farm southeast of Shawano for 28 years. Mary Lou did the feeding and the bookkeeping when they were actively farming, but she’s still busy. Along with preparing for Rural Life Days, she’s in her 20th year as a 4-H youth leader, continues to teach an “Adventures in Agriculture” class at local schools, and spends some time each week helping her aging parents.
Kugel also does farm appraisal work, and she said she finds that comes easier when she’s listening to the rosary being recited.
“I have the rosary on No. 3 on that CD player there,” Kugel said, pointing to the desk in her home office. “I like to play them (the different mysteries of the rosary) in the background. It relaxes me. It keeps my mind in focus.”
After last year’s Rural Life Days at Sacred Heart, Kugel was thinking about what she could use for door prizes for the 2019 celebration. An idea to turn the wood from Sacred Heart’s old kneelers was inspired by two large wooden rosaries that adorn walls in her own home, one from the wood of the home she grew up in and another from the black walnut trees that grew on her grandfather’s farm.
Her husband stripped five kneeler boards, and Kugel got in touch with a retired farmer in northern Wisconsin (who asked to remain anonymous) to see if he’d be willing to turn the boards into rosaries.
“I told him that if I could get five to seven rosaries, I’d finish them and use them for door prizes,” Kugel said. “He called me sometime in August and said, ‘I have 28 done — do you want any more?’”
Kugel plans to give away the remaining rosaries as gifts.
Although it’s 11 degrees on an early December day, Kugel puts on some fleecewear and a winter cap and crosses the yard from her home to the old milk house, where she’s been finishing the rosaries. Most hang about four feet long as the finishing oil dries on them. They hang from some improvised hooks and bent wire hangers as she applies the Danish oil that brings out the natural grain of the wood. With plenty of lead time, they’ll be ready for Rural Life Days.
Held in two locations each spring, the annual diocesan Rural Life Days celebration — for the 715 area code, it will be April 2 at Sacred Heart Church in Shawano; for the 920 area code it is scheduled for April 4 at St. Louis Church in Dyckesville — is a time of blessing, noted Kugel, who is a member of the diocesan Rural Life Committee.
“The purpose is to give thanks for the blessings we have from God to provide food and fiber for people,” Kugel said. “There is a Mass of Blessing for the rural life community, and seed and soil is blessed for the coming year, so there is food to feed and sustain us.”
Along with farmers, those who garden are invited as well, Kugel said. “There are a lot of gardeners who provide fresh vegetables for food pantries and shelters like our own SAM25 in Shawano.”