Catholic Herald Staff
It took two decades after graduation for Mary Henseler of St. Paul, Minnesota, to use the art degree she earned at UW-Milwaukee. The stay-at-home mother of four now uses her talents for much more than a remunerative hobby – she ministers through “vintage with a purpose” religious jewelry.
On the “about” tab at her SquareUp.com shop, Henseler self-describes as a “Catholic sacred jewelry artist.” Originally from Wisconsin, Henseler was raised Catholic but left the Church at the age of 11 for personal and familial reasons. Through a series of events and connections, she made her way back to the Church and was confirmed at 28 years old.
Soon after she was married, and as their family grew to include four children, Henseler dedicated herself to raising them, but the question of if and how she ever would use her degree remained a distant yet hopeful thought.
The how started to clarify itself after helping a niece decorate a new apartment. They were shopping rummage sales and Henseler found a cross pendant that intrigued her.
“I wanted to wear something meaningful,” she told the Catholic Herald. After putting the cross together with another vintage piece, she heard a lot of positive comments when she wore it. That led to browsing the internet for artistic Catholic jewelry that Henseler would like to wear.
Not finding any led her to wonder what other pieces she might create herself.
“It just started snowballing,” Henseler said, retelling how the table she set up in her basement with a few tools has now become a small studio with a wide array of tools and materials.
Henseler started “She Sells Sanctuary,” and she has now sold more than 1,000 one-of-a-kind Catholic jewelry pieces, repurposing both vintage jewelry and religious medals. Her tag line is “Vintage with a purpose.”
“That purpose, my purpose,” Henseler includes in her website bio, “is to evangelize, as St. John Paul the Great calls us to do in the New Evangelization.”
At first, she didn’t realize it was a ministry. Henseler used her artistic degree and what she learned in three semesters of jewelry making to combine pieces and match materials. Some pieces are simple combinations, others more elaborate assemblages with the medal or cross mounted in an antique watch casing. She takes weight, patina and accents all into consideration and each piece is totally unique, even though there are similar base and complement pieces she has an eye for finding at antique shops and rummage sales.
From the beginning, word of mouth has been Henseler’s most common and effective source of marketing.
“Word comes back, and I’m finding out that when they started wearing my things, people started asking questions,” she said, questions about the piece and its meaning.
With a Marian piece, the inquiry might lead to a clarification that Catholics don’t worship Mary but pray for her intercession with her son Jesus or to telling the story behind various approved Marian apparitions.
It was at a home-based sale that the comment of “what a beautiful ministry” made Henseler realize that was exactly what she had started.
“I always prayed for a way to use my degree,” she said, combining it with something she could do from home.
Now, for dozens – even hundreds – of “spiritual sisters in Christ, I’ve given them a tool to evangelize.”
Henseler takes her She Sells Sanctuary booth to multiple Catholic conventions and events each year as a vendor in the Twin Cities region and into western Wisconsin.
She has consistently received “overwhelming and encouraging feedback” over the years. Henseler puts unique and meaningful jewelry in the hands of her customers. In turn, they have conversation starters and opportunities to share about the saint or Marian apparition the medal represents.
With a variety of price points, the religious pieces are accessible to a variety of people. In Henseler’s own words, they become “something you can wear every day,” both expressing the Catholic Christian faith and reminding the wearer to live it out.
Of particular interest to the artist are the images of Divine Mercy, the Miraculous Medal and Our Lady of Guadalupe. She says that they are the three divinely inspired images coming directly from heaven and divine intervention.
To broaden the customer base, She Sells Sanctuary’s collection includes more generically Christian pieces – plain crosses, mustard seed pendants and others – as well as more masculine chains and cuff links.
In her packed studio, Henseler has dozens of items waiting for new life. Her own deep faith sees the repurposing of these religious items as connecting past, present and future – the lives of the saints honored, those who wear the pieces with their own stories and how the piece might plant seeds of faith or enrich her own.
As much as the artist loves creating the jewelry – which include necklaces, rings, bracelets, pins and earrings – what she loves even more is meeting “so many faithful, beautiful people.” She has learned a lot about devotions and through personal stories shared.
A medal or vintage jewelry piece might sit for months, even years, until Henseler finds just the right fit. Then she witnesses hearts opened when just the right person finds the piece at a sale and is touched in a particularly deep way and she knows the timing was providentially perfect.
While Henseler has made commissioned pieces, she claims items she has found and repurposed were more often than not “commissioned by the Holy Spirit.”
“The stories give you the chills,” she said summarizing the amazement of dozens of buyers when they find a piece featuring a more obscure patron saint or an item that is unbelievably personal and timely. There have been times like those where Henseler finds herself moved to give the piece away free of charge, as if the knowledge she has been a cooperating instrument of God’s grace is all the payment she needed.
Her charity goes beyond circumstantial. Each year, Henseler finds one local Christian or Catholic cause to donate to with a percentage of her sales from select events.
One year, she chose the Philomena House in St. Paul, a home for women needing a place to stay to ensure a safe and stable pregnancy, delivery and early life after birth, even when the mother has chosen to place the baby for adoption.
In the home’s August 2013 newsletter, they shared the story of how Henseler had come across a first-class relic of St. Philomena. She learned about Philomena House months after acquiring the relic and felt moved to gift it to those running the home. At that point, they had yet to have an established location of their own, although they had a chosen residence they were looking for benefactors to help purchase.
Before the end of that year, the funding came together and the six-bedroom home – a former Franciscan convent – was purchased. The leadership behind Philomena House truly believes it was Henseler’s gift of the relic that was a turning point to getting the home established.
For the long-time-hopeful artist, “doing this has really enlivened my faith, on so many different levels.
“One feeling called to do this, and then having a special mission of helping people evangelize,” Henseler said and added, “surrounding myself with Catholics has lifted me and taught me to lift other people.”
She is grateful to have found such a meaningful outlet for her degree and God-given talents. Now, she just needs a bigger studio.
For more information on She Sells Sanctuary, visit squareup.com/store/she-sells-sanctuary or www.facebook.com/vintagewithapurpose/.