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Nelson Fine Art & Gifts Blog

History in a Basement Chapel: the Original San Damiano Cross of Fr. Sam

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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 United States. I have confidence in saying this:

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 Italy. This tells us whether or not a San Damiano cross is from an original photograph or from a scan or photograph of a Fr. Sam/Nelson Fine Art & Gifts cross.

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 Assisi, as well as a close friend of the school’s President, Fr. Michael Scanlan, Fr. Sam had always wanted to see Franciscan spirituality more widely known and lived on campus. Fr. Sam believed one of the keys to unlocking Franciscan devotion in the U.S. to be the famous “San Damiano” Cross, or the cross of St. Damian. It was the image of Christ on the San Damiano cross that opened its lips and spoke to St. Francis in the legendary account where Francis received a commission from God to “rebuild my church.” To this day, the icon-style cross has become a symbol of both religious and secular Franciscan devotion worldwide.

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 United States and certainly not affordable to the fervent and devoted, but cash-strapped, Catholic students of the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

The original cross hanging in Assisi

Thankfully, Father Sam had connections in Assisi, specifically with an O.F.M. friar named Father Adrian that he had studied with for the priesthood. It was Father Adrian that mailed a professional photograph of the San Damiano cross to Father Sam in the United States, who scanned the photograph and began to reproduce the image. To this day, the Nelson San Damiano cross, shipped and venerated around the world, is printed from the same photograph mailed across the Atlantic by Father Adrian so many years ago.

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 published 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 Steubenville one summer and brought a San Damiano booklet and cross with them back to their home in Kansas City, Missouri, where it captured the imagination of their 12 year-old son, Mark. In 1985, Father Sam’s workshop, which was now employing student workers to create the ever more popular crosses, was commissioned to build a large San Damiano Cross for Christ the King Chapel on campus—the same cross that hangs in that chapel to this day. Slowly but surely, what had once been a beautiful devotional image known only to a few Franciscan friars and Italian pilgrims began to take hold in the knowledge and spiritual lives of laypeople all around the United States and all around the world.

Dave and Mary Nelson eventually moved to Steubenville where then-teenage Mark Nelson began to spend time working in Fr. Sam’s woodshop. Years later, Mark would assume ownership of Fr. Sam’s workshop, blueprints, the San Damiano cross, and a small line of religious gift items.

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 neighborhood of Steubenville. She and Fr. Sam were friends and teammates in campus ministry at Franciscan University many years ago.

Mary Kay remembers how Fr. Sam, always full of zeal and new ideas, had a master plan to re-evangelize the students of Franciscan University by offering them jobs building San Damiano crosses. Not only would the student workers be slowly converted by seeing and handling images of Christ, but the working hours would also give Fr. Sam ample time to talk, ask questions, listen, and relate his own relationship with Jesus to them. It was a subtle plan by a shrewd evangelist.

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 Steubenville, orchestrated and carried out by the now-legendary Fr. Michael Scanlan, was still in its infancy and groundwork-laying stage. The San Damiano cross was just one more component of the college revival plan, but ultimately, it brought Franciscan spirituality and historical heritage to Americans in a way that Fr. Scanlan did not anticipate.

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:

Heavenly Bunch

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 Elizabeth of the Trinity
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

With the kingdom of God in my heart here.

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 Steubenville, Madeline Nelson and I were able to see and touch yet another piece of history—not just Nelson history but American, Catholic, and Franciscan history. For Madeline in particular, who was born into the company in an almost literal sense (her mother went into labor the night Mark bought Fr. Sam’s shop), the experience is something she won’t soon forget.

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.

Fun facts:

-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 Steubenville’s Portciuncula chapel, an identical replica of the original chapel built by St. Francis in the 13 th century. Fr. Sam dreamed up the replica while on pilgrimage in Assisi in 1982, where he told his friend and fellow pilgrim, Mary Kay Lacke, all about his plan.

-The original Fr. Sam cross is startlingly identical to the crucifix in Franciscan University’s Christ the King Chapel, at least prior to the latter’s restoration. Our company was commissioned to restore the 8-foot-tall San Damiano at the University Chapel in 2014, whereby we re-printed and mounted the faded, yellowing image, along with re-painting the gold frame a new, shining gold. Mary Kay Lacke’s own cross obviously did not undergo that same restoration, and therefore still has the old marks of age once present on the large Chapel cross.

*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.

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