Posted by Kevin Nelles on 9th Feb 2016
This morning, I had the experience of touching history in an unusual and unexpected way.
Fr. Sam Tiesi's original prototype
I got to see, touch, and hold the original San Damiano cross
made by Fr. Sam Tiesi. This cross was
the first San Damiano ever produced in the
Over the past 30 years, virtually every authentic San Damiano cross image* produced in the United States, or produced offshore by American companies, whether made by our company or by others, is based on Fr. Sam’s prototype.
We know this because of certain clue “markings” on Fr. Sam’s
image not present on the actual San Damiano in
How often do we see an American-made San Damiano that did not come from the Fr. Sam image? Rarely.
Have you ever heard of Fr. Sam Tiesi before? Without him, our company would not exist as you know it today—Fr. Sam created the woodshop that would eventually become Nelson Fine Art & Gifts.
In the early 1980’s, Fr. Sam Tiesi, a Franciscan Third Order
Regular Friar of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Province, was stationed at the Franciscan
University of Steubenville. A lover of
the life and spiritual practices of St. Francis of
The very image of Christ whose lips once moved and spoke to St. Francis.
The problem was that any copies of the San Damiano cross for
personal veneration and church usage had to be imported from Italy, which was
not only very expensive, but in the days before the internet and cellphones,
required great amounts of paperwork and lead time. Needless to say, the San Damiano cross was
virtually unknown in the
The original cross hanging in Assisi
Thankfully, Father Sam had connections in
Father Sam’s first order of business was to make the cross available to the students and faculty of the University, and to that end, he set up a primitive wood shop in the garage of the Holy Spirit Friary on campus where he began to carve San Damiano crosses by hand, affixing a “bumper sticker” style print of the image on each cross. The devotional crosses were a hit. The first customer was the campus bookstore, where the crosses were sold to students and staff. The second customer was the conference office, who in turn sold the crosses to faithful Catholics from around the country who would come to the small school every summer to renew their faith and dedication to God.
Fr. Sam Tiesi speaking at a Franciscan University summer conference
It was around this time that Father Michael Scanlan first
The San Damiano Cross, an Explanation, a small booklet that was sold at the University
bookstore and conferences alike (and still today by Nelson's!). A fervent Catholic
couple named Dave and Mary Nelson attended a conference in
Dave and Mary Nelson eventually moved to
Eventually, all of that became Nelson Fine Art & Gifts.
How that happened is a story for another time.
So, getting back to my experience from this morning, where had the original cross of Fr. Sam been, and how did I come about it?
The original cross of Fr. Sam resides in the home of Mary
Kay Lacke, a former sister and now-consecrated virgin who lives in the LaBelle
Mary Kay remembers how Fr. Sam, always full of zeal and new
ideas, had a master plan to re-evangelize the students of
Fr. Sam Tiesi characteristically surrounding himself with students
You must realize that this was not the dynamic, faithful Franciscan University of Steubenville that you all doubtlessly know and admire, but a wounded college with dwindling enrollment numbers, full of secular students mired in sin and relativism, situated in a town rife with racial tension, political corruption, and economic despair.
Fr. Sam and Mary Kay were both part of the campus ministry
team and would play a critical role in the years to come. The dramatic revival of
Fr. Sam went to work on his prototype, using an old Sears Roebuck chop saw to make precisely angled cuts of wood in order to match the bizarre and asymmetrical angles of the famous cross. The moulding he used for the prototype was nothing elaborate or even intended for art framing, but cheap case moulding like you would use along the baseboards or windows of a rental home. The frame and print were mounted to simple OSB (a type of plywood) and backed with particle board. It was certainly a Franciscan effort. Once the frame was painted with simple store-bought gold paint, the cross was complete.
Hanging in Fr. Sam’s shop for a number of years, the cross stayed with its maker even after the shop was eventually purchased by 23-year-old Mark Nelson. Years later, Fr. Sam gave the cross to Mary Kay Lacke, his old campus ministry partner, who gratefully hung the cross in her own private home chapel where it has resided ever since.
Mary Kay's private chapel with Fr. Sam's cross
or the last two years of his life, Fr. Sam suffered from myasthenia gravis (MG), an neurological autoimmune disease that caused degeneration in his muscles and organs. He passed away on June 12 th, 2001, at 71 years old.
His fellow priest and dear friend, Fr. Michael Scanlan, wrote about his friend, following Fr. Sam’s death:
“Fr. Sam Tiesi showed us how to live, and more, he showed us how to die. He frequently discussed the secret of living in the family of God. Therefore, dying was simply a continuation of the reality he was already living…
…His life seemed so ordinary, friendly, and playful. Few people remarked on his holiness until his death on June 12, 2001. Then hundreds of testimonials flooded into the University, many personally directed to me. The most common themes were, ‘He changed my life.’ ‘He showed me the Father’s merciful love.’ ‘He was so generous and caring to me.’ ‘He was always there for me.’”
Here is a poem written by Father Sam toward the end of his life:
I am crucified to MG and
MG is crucified to me
I am on house arrest
Together with Paul, the best
A Carthusian like St. Bruno
Great saint for us, you know
I share with the Little Flower
Her lack of breath and eating power
I live like Clare, best of mothers
Sick but caring for sisters and brothers
I share with
In my heart the life of eternity
John of the Cross and God’s contact
Making space for God’s impact
Like Francis, taking hermitage time,
I am really, really doing fine
I could go on forever
And never reach the end, never
I am now with them all up there
Amen. Amen. Amen.
In the Two Hearts, Jesus and Mary
Fr. Sam Tiesi, TOR
We here at Nelson Fine Art & Gifts are proud of the spiritual heritage that comes from our founder and spiritual grandfather, Sam Tiesi, his love of St. Francis, and the San Damiano cross, the original Nelson product.
On this cold February morning in
May God bless you all, and may God bless every customer who has bought or will buy a Nelson San Damiano cross.
Fr. Sam Tiesi, TOR, pray for us.
-Old product codes beginning with “ST-” were named after, you guessed it, Sam Tiesi
-Our greeting card SKU code “STC-” for “Sam Tiesi Card” is the last remaining ST code, and will likely continue as such.
-Fr. Sam is also responsible for the creation of
-The original Fr. Sam cross is startlingly identical to the
*While we can give Fr. Sam credit for the vast majority of authentic, 2D/printed San Damiano crosses, it is true that many artists and sculptors have, over the past decade or so, given the San Damiano cross their own artistic spin. We do not give Fr. Sam credit for those sculpted or artistic rendering versions for obvious reasons.