A gift from the art

Mater Dei School first-graders Emmy Lojewski (center) and Madalynn Baeza get help from Father John Pilcher, pastor of Mater Dei Parish in Topeka, on their project. PHOTO BY MARY LOUISE TOTTEN

by Carolyn Kaberline
Special to The Leaven

TOPEKA — Mary Louise Totten has fond memories of growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, in the 1970s. Those memories include summers spent selling dandelion necklaces and painted rocks to earn money for the ice cream truck and of Father Cyprian Nordhus, a Benedictine who lived at the St. Joseph-St. Benedict Church rectory with fellow Benedictines Father Ambrose Keating and Father Basil Finken.

“If you would see Father Cyprian walking down the street, you might have thought he was a homeless man,” she said. “He was dressed in black. The cuffs of his pants dragged the ground and were very tattered.”

Totten said it was only the white collar on his black shirt that gave him away as a priest.

“He shuffled as he walked down the hill from St. Joseph and St. Benedict Church carrying two large plastic shopping bags. You might have thought the bags were filled with all of his worldly possessions.”

What those bags actually contained were almost magical, however. They were full of empty plastic bottles, pieces of wood, carving tools and an assortment of other materials.

“While I don’t remember the actual day or year I met him, I do remember working on art projects with him,” Totten said. “The children on our block came to our house on Mill Street, and we all sat on the front steps of the house creating wonderful memories and religious art projects.”

Those creations included crosses cut from old plastic bottles with curtain hooks added so they could be hung in a youngster’s room and holy water fonts made from old detergent bottles that Father Cyprian also filled with holy water.

“He would trace your hand on a small piece of balsa wood and then he would write your name beautifully in block letters with his shaky hands,” she said. “Then, he would show you how to carve around your name in the wood. Father Cyprian would later put a plaster-of- Paris mold of Jesus or Mary on it and paint it.”

Totten noted that Father Cyprian would work with the youngsters for about a half-hour and then collect all of the materials so they could work on the projects later or he would finish them at the rectory.

“He did not ask if you were Catholic or not,” she explained. “If you wanted to make the projects, he welcomed you to the group. Then he would move on to the next neighborhood.”

To this day, Totten has no idea how he managed to remember all of the children’s projects or on what blocks they lived.

But now as a first-grade teacher at Mater Dei School in Topeka, Totten wanted her pupils to experience some of those same memories. So she enlisted the aid of Father John Pilcher, pastor of the parish.

“When the children in the neighborhood would see Father Cyprian coming,” Totten said, “they would shout his name and go running toward him to see what projects he had in his bags.

“That’s kind of like Father John. When the students see him walking across the playground, they go running toward him. They love giving him high-fives.”

“I always want to be involved with the school so I know what’s going on and can be a resource for them,” said Father Pilcher.

But lately, he has been seen quite a lot in the school and especially in Totten’s classroom, often wielding a glue gun as he helps the students with a variety of art projects.

“This year, Father John came to my classroom and helped the students build boats out of popsicle sticks when they were learning the story ‘Jesus Calls the Apostles,’” Totten explained.

“Mrs. Pierce, my classroom aide, helped the students glue fabric on the clothespins for the apostles’ clothes,” she continued. “I helped the students paint boxes to represent the Sea of Galilee.”

Father Pilcher also came to Totten’s classroom to help the students make Resurrection crosses. While helping them with their project, he asked them several questions so they could earn jewels for their crosses.

“The students were very excited to have him in our room,” she said, adding that Father Pilcher then helped the students glue the jewels they earned onto their crosses.

“I believe that the students at Mater Dei will have wonderful memories of Father John and our religious art projects.”

What does Father Pilcher like best about visiting the school?

“Giving them a hard time,” he’s quick to respond.

But, then, more seriously, he said, “I like to ask them questions and get their responses.”

“Catholic education calls for a priest to be present for the children,” Father Pilcher continued. “They need to see him as a person as well as a priest.”

From the way the children greet him whenever they see him, it’s obvious his goal has been accomplished.

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