John Sindelar and his son, also named John, of Sindelar’s Fine Woodworking Co., Edwardsburg, are replicating 22 eight-foot pews made of ash, walnut and poplar, for The Old Rugged Cross Church restoration in Pokagon, between Dowagiac and Niles.

Archived Story

Sindelar carves ‘Cross’ pews

Published 4:55pm Thursday, May 10, 2012

Back in 1969, traveling to Southwestern Michigan College from Baroda, John Sindelar admired barn shutters on the Old Rugged Cross Church.
Now the owner of Sindelar’s Fine Woodworking Co. on Section Street in Edwardsburg is helping make the Pokagon landmark the “New Rugged Cross” with 22 eight-foot pews the craftsman and world-renowned tool collector with a seven-room museum is replicating for the 14-year restoration.
The 1862 hops barn between Dowagiac and Niles was made into a church in 1876 and, in 1913, was the site of the first public singing of the beloved hymn during a revival visit by the Rev. George Bennard from Albion.
“We copied them almost to the ‘T’ from an old one,” Sindelar said Thursday. “They’re made out of three kinds of wood — ash, walnut and poplar, which is kind of unusual. We do a lot of restoration and duplication of antique furniture. These were built better, which is why they lasted so long. Whoever was the carpenter knew how to make them strong.”
Sindelar and his son, John, “donated all their labor and have used their fantastic talents generously, charging The Old Rugged Cross Foundation only for a portion of materials used,” which “enabled supporters of The Old Rugged Cross restoration to ‘adopt’ a pew for an extremely reasonable price, which paid for installation, engraving of the wooden medallions on the ends of the pews, as well as our cost for the pews,” Treasurer Molly Shaffer said.
She and her husband, Bob, began their ongoing journey with the July 1998 purchase of the former First Methodist Episcopal Church of Pokagon, which led to formation of a foundation which is a multi-denominational, nonprofit corporation. The church is not only on the state register of historic sites, but also achieved national significance.
“We really thank them wholeheartedly for the job they’ve done,” Bob said. “We’ve got two handmade, 1876-style, painted, leaded glass windows in. We don’t find these craftsmen. God sends these artists to us, like Dale” Layman of Berrien Springs, project manager.
“It’s an addictive project we have grown with,” Molly said. “There are so many cases in the Bible where God used people who weren’t qualified. I felt unqualified until I was told, ‘God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.’ A lot of people think we’re obsessed.”
The church had been abandoned, condemned, invaded by raccoons and defiled by vandals. Two years after the hymn’s debut, a farmer bought the building, removed the sanctuary floor and brought back livestock.
Sindelar learned carving — the same process he’s using on an ornate 1850s piece of furniture from Georgia — from Joe Herlitschka, a Dowagiac man who had been “one of the most famous carvers in Europe. He was Hungarian and came here having 50 carvers underneath him. They did big castles.”
The museum exhibiting a third of his collection contains the world’s largest known wood plane for making wine barrels in France, a tabletop shop with tiny working tools, 500-year-old chestnut-husking shoes, pit saws, a 19th century lathe from Czechoslovakia (Sindelar means “shingle maker” in Czechoslovakian), a Tibetan warrior’s vest, remnants of a wooden ruler factory in England and collections of tape measures, axes and oil cans.

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