Artist’s hand-carved crucifix depicts precise moment in salvation history

Delbert Hayes’s greatest artwork adorns gathering area in Hannibal church


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Delbert Hayes looked up at the life-size crucifix he had worked on for three years and was startled to realize the moment he had captured.

It was the instant Jesus bowed His head and yielded up His spirit.

“I want you to go up to the cross and look up into Jesus’s eyes, and you’ll see that it’s the very moment when He died,” Mr. Hayes told a delegation of students of Holy Family School in Hannibal.

Mr. Hayes, a lifelong Marion County resident and 45-year member of Holy Family Parish, spoke to the students March 10 in the newly-created gathering area of Holy Family Church.

He answered their questions about the wood-carving project that had consumed much of his free time for three years, two decades ago.

“It was the Holy Spirit that inspired me,” he said. “I know it’s the best piece of work I’ve ever done in my life. I let the Holy Spirit work through me.”

He said he made the crucifix for the people of the Church, adding: “My intention was to put Jesus forward and leave myself in the background.”

Mr. Hayes, 84, grew up in the country and always enjoyed working with his hands. LOOK magazine featured him in its Nov. 21, 1950, edition in a photo essay titled “A Modern Tom Sawyer.”

He and his wife Vivian met in high school and became reacquainted during a chance encounter at a bus station in St. Louis.

Mr. Hayes resolved to become Catholic after they got married.

Woodworking remained a favorite hobby. He built a workshop outside their home and carved hundreds of wooden ducks to give away to friends and members of his large, extended family.

“It was a great joy to give them away because I knew that whenever I entered a home, there was a piece of me there,” he said.

He never forgot the beautiful wooden image of Jesus he had seen in the Philippines while serving in the U.S. Navy in 1964.

“I always wanted to carve a full-size crucifix,” he recalled.

He got busy on the project in 1997 after attending a Cursillo weekend in Quincy, Illinois, where he was reminded that God is counting on him to lead other people to Christ through prayer and evangelization.

“Behold the wood”

Mr. Hayes had bought several large pieces of ponderosa pine that were salvaged from the stage of the old Park Theatre in Hannibal.

He counted the rings and determined that the slow-growth timbers for that structure, built in 1882, were over 300 years old.

“Barnum and Bailey brought the elephants to stand on that stage!” Mr. Hayes told the students. “So these were big, heavy timbers.”

The wood was knotted and colorful, having taken on reddish veins from mineral deposits in the ground while the trees were growing in Minnesota.

Mr. Hayes once told fellow Holy Family parishioner Sarah Deien that God planted those trees and waited for them to be used for this intended purpose.

The artist measured the lengths of his own arms and legs to approximate the proportions for the image of Jesus.

“I made big long pieces of paper out of those measurements, and I laid them on the wood, and that’s how I got the dimensions,” Mr. Hayes said.

He fashioned the arms, legs, torso and head from individual pieces of wood, gently drawing out the contours with a hammer and chisel.

The knots and mineral deposits in the wood gradually took on new significance as the wounds of Jesus’s passion.

“A lot of the scars were already in the wood,” he explained to the children. “Like that knot on the left hand side of the rib, and some of the bruises on the arms, like here on the elbows, that was in the wood itself.”

Mrs. Hayes learned of the project after work was well under way.

He explained that he was making something for Jesus and the Church. She encouraged him to continue.

“There were days when I’d work on it all day long, eight hours of hard work, and I really enjoyed it,” he recalled. “Some days, maybe just an hour or two.”

There were times he knew he should stop.

“We’re all sinners,” he reminded the children. “And when I was working on this, my mind occasionally got kind of ornery. So I decided that whenever that happened, I wouldn’t work on it. I’d go away and come back later.”

Piercing thorn

After carving each section, Mr. Hayes used sandpaper, broken pieces of glass and a small electric grinding wheel to make the wood smooth.

“Yeah, I got hurt,” he acknowledged. “I got splinters in my hands, got hit with the hammer. Once in a while, I’d cut my finger or buzz my hand with the grinder or something like that.”

The head proved to be to be the most challenging part, requiring the most attention to detail.

“When I started this, there was a movie called ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ on TV,” he said. “So I paused the picture and I traced the profile of his face.”

He carved actor Robert Powell’s facial outline into a 1-by-1 square-foot board and used that as a guide for carving the facial features into the wood.

The crown is made of real thorns, taken from a black locust tree outside his studio.

“They were really sharp!” he stated. “And I broke off the very tips because I kept getting stuck with them. And it hurt! so you know how painful it must have been for Our Lord.”

Each piece of the image of the crucified Christ is attached to the others with a wooden dowel pin.

The body is fastened to the cross with light bolts that look like round nails from the front but cannot come loose.

He fashioned the cross from glued layers of 2-by-4 pine lumber boards.

“And I carved it to look old and weathered,” he said.

“Look at the man!”

A student asked Mr. Hayes if he knew from the beginning what the crucifix would look like when it was finished.

“I had seen other crucifixes around in the world and pictures of many others, so that’s generally what my thoughts of a crucifix would be like,” he answered. “But I let the Holy Spirit guide me through the whole process.”

He turned it over to God whenever he hit a roadblock or couldn’t decide how to proceed with some important detail.

“For example, which way the head should be looking: This way or thataway?” he said. “I prayed about which way the head should be, and when the Holy Spirit said, ‘Thataway,’ that’s the way I went!

“And I also had the same thought about which leg should cross the other at the bottom: This way or thataway?” he said. “And I asked the Holy Spirit, and then that’s the way I went.”

Mr. Hayes didn’t know when the crucifix was finished until he stopped and looked closely at the face.

“I didn’t have any intention of making a face that showed the moment of death,” he said. “After it was done, that’s when I noticed it.”

Mr. Hayes and Father Mike Quinn, who served as pastor of Holy Family Parish from 1998-2020, agreed that the finished crucifix would be an excellent addition to the Holy Family Adoration Chapel, which was separated by glass from the rest of the church.

The crucifix would be visible to people coming to spend a Holy Hour in the chapel, as well as to people departing after Mass.

Mr. Hayes’s cousin and nephew helped him carry it from the studio to his truck, then from his truck into church.

“It’s pretty heavy — I think it’s about 250 pounds with the cross,” Mr. Hayes noted.

Fr. Quinn blessed the crucifix after it was secured to the chapel wall.

“Come and see”

Father Matthew Flatley, current pastor of the Hannibal and Palmyra parishes, explained to the Holy Family students that this crucifix is much more than a piece of religious art.

“An icon is an image that points us toward God,” he said. “It manifests a portrait of faith and it also strengthens our faith.”

“The intention that Delbert Hayes had for it to be displayed in our church, for it to be blessed by Fr. Mike, and for people to look upon it, to gaze upon it and pray ... through all of that, this beautiful piece of art has become an icon of faith,” Fr. Flatley stated.

Holy Family Parish recently created a new adoration chapel in a large room behind the sanctuary. It is quieter and more private, with fewer distractions.

The former adoration chapel, located near the main entrance to the church, is now a gathering area for parishioners, a place for fellowship and activities before and after Mass.

“I’m thrilled that this crucifix is now the centerpiece of a very public space, where every visitor can walk up close to it and take a good long look, and even touch it,” said Fr. Flatley. “I know I will encourage the children to do that.”

He noted that he can see the crucifix from the sanctuary whenever he offers Mass there.

“It’s a beautiful thing to look upon, to gaze upon as I am looking at the people and celebrating the Eucharist,” he said. “It inspires me.”

“Remember me”

Upon recognizing the face of Jesus at the moment of His death, Mr. Hayes thought of the repentant thief who was crucified near Jesus and asked Jesus to remember Him when He comes into His kingdom. (Luke 23:39-43)

“Amen, I say to you,” Jesus told the man, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Mr. Hayes urged each of the students to look upon this representation of Jesus’s face and think of Him saying the same thing to them.

“You know, when I was your age, I didn’t care too much about religion,” he said. “But you can experience that today and every day.”

He encouraged the students to make a habit of communicating with the Holy Spirit every day.

“He is God’s advocate,” Mr. Hayes said. “He is all-knowing. He will not lie to you about anything. You don’t have to tell Him to come be with you. He’s right there all the time.”

Mr. Hayes also told them to pray each night before falling asleep, “Jesus, thank You for being my Savior and my friend.”

Holy Family School Principal Sara Hooley said the students often hear about what it means to be good Catholic stewards of their time, talent and treasure.

“What a gift it is to get to see this!” she said. “God places a gift in each one of us, and the Holy Spirit calls us to share that gift with others, whatever stage of life we’re in.”

“That dreamer”

Mr. Hayes, who grew up Protestant, noted that many of his ancestors, some who await the Resurrection in St. Stephen Cemetery in Indian Creek, were Catholic, “so I feel like I’ve come full circle.”

He recently suffered a major health crisis but with prompt medical attention and the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick was home from the hospital less than a week later.

He once told Fr. Flatley that his wife says he’s a dreamer.

“And I’ll probably die if I ever stop dreaming,” he said.