Cross my heart: Catholic woodworker honors others’ service with custom gift

North Texas Catholic
(May 1, 2024) Feature

Father Jerry Ward, holding a gift cross, stands beside Don Whitley, a St. Thomas the Apostle in Fort Worth parishioner. (Courtesy photo/Don Whitley)

The cross is a powerful symbol in Father Jerry Ward’s life.

“When I made my final vows, Father Superior handed me the Oblate cross with the words, ‘Do this and you will live,’” the retired priest said, remembering his time with the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate. “Over the years, I found that’s so true. If we follow the cross, and everything it means, we will live a full life now and be prepared for the next.”

Two new crosses, honoring his lifetime of service to others, are a reminder of that message. One gift recognizes his 56 years in the priesthood. The other is a tribute to his military career in the Air Force — first as a flight mechanic and later, a chaplain for 21 years.

“Each cross is just unique and beautiful,” Fr. Ward remarked, looking at one of the wooden tributes decorated with stars and burnished stripes. “You can tell every stroke was done with a lot of care, effort, time, and joy.”

Don Whitley, a St. Thomas the Apostle parishioner who made the crosses, became acquainted with the padre when he visited the north Fort Worth church to celebrate Mass.

“The first time we had the pleasure of listening to Fr. Ward was on a Father’s Day, and he told us about writing a letter to his dad each year,” Whitley explained. “He and his sister, Mary Agnes, are just wonderful people. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to put on the cross to recognize his years as a priest because he’s so special.”

For the past 18 months, the former delivery man for Mrs. Baird’s bakery has used his spare time to create mementos from wood that recognize the unselfish service of first responders, military veterans, and clergy. It’s a hobby developed after a diagnosis of diabetes and Charcot's foot collapse forced Whitley into early retirement.

Several major surgeries to rebuild his left foot immobilized the 64-year-old for months and provided time for reflection and a return to the faith.

“As a youth, I rebelled like a lot of people did at my age. That’s why I quit going to church,” explained the cradle Catholic, admitting he didn't attend Mass for 20 years.

Health issues and the passage of time led to a renewed relationship with God.

“It completely changed me,” Whitley continued. “I got back into the Church and my wife, Linda, who is a great support to me, went through RCIA and converted. Now I try to go to Mass every day.”

Hoping to find a productive way to pass time and inspire others, the San Antonio native purchased some tools and began honing his woodworking skills by making simple decorations and then advancing to larger pieces like the American flag. He donated one handcrafted rendition of the Stars and Stripes to the Saginaw Fire Department because “they serve everyone and don’t get the credit they deserve.”

But crosses are his forte and personalizing yellow pine wood with a name, military insignia, or corpus of Christ generates emotion for both the artisan and recipient. Whitley made a cross for the fiancé of the woman who cuts his hair.

“The night she gave it to him I got a message that he was so moved, he cried,” the woodworker recalled. “I was sitting in my car when I got the text, and it just gave me chills. It’s a blessing when people enjoy what I do.”

People often ask the Saginaw resident if he served in the military.

“I didn’t and that’s my only regret,” Whitley affirmed. “This is my way of giving back.”

It’s also a way of sharing his faith with others.

“God really guided me on this journey,” he said thoughtfully. “If I didn’t have God in my life, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Cross, Father Jerry Ward, Don Whitley, Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate, St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Fort Worth, trending-english