Puppet Master

A Benedictine monk practices the Neopolitan art of crèche-doll-making

There’s something wrong with the head in Father Nathanael’s hand. That much is obvious. But what? Father Nathanael Hauser rolls the little head around his paw and lifts it up toward the slanted winter light, which is limping in through the window. Father Nathanael has dozens of heads lying around in his workshop on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville. He is a keeper of heads, in fact—a connoisseur. He looks into the skull’s eyes; the skull, in its own sightless fashion, looks back at him. “I have to find out where I’m going to put the ears,” Father Nathanael says. “Without the ears, it doesn’t look human to me, and I can’t get a personality.”

He pinches. He pokes. And there they are: ears. Ten minutes ago, Father Nathanael was crumpling up a ball of aluminum foil and covering it with a lump of white polymer clay. And now he has molded the head of an angel. An eyeless, hairless, lipless angel, perhaps. But an angel nonetheless.

If this creature takes the right shape, Father Nathanael will place it in the gift shop of St. John’s Abbey. This Christmas season, a handful of his angels and original crèches—that is, depictions of Jesus’s birth—will be on sale. It turns out that making rare, handcrafted dolls is more than a quirky hobby for a 57-year-old man. Crèche dolls, along with Russian-style icon paintings and reliquary boxes for storing the bones of the holy and the dead—these are Father Nathanael’s contribution to his community of 180 Benedictine monks. Put another way, Father Nathanael is the go-to guy for Catholic arts and crafts.

“I think there’s a feeling we’ve gotten PhD-heavy as a community—kind of heady,” Father Nathanael says. “And it might be good to do something with
our hands.”

Admittedly, Father Nathanael himself has a PhD from the University of Minnesota, in classical and medieval art and archaeology. In his 32 years in the Benedictine order, he has spent 11 years studying, five of them in Rome, training in theology. For a time, he led the art-history courses at St. John’s. But after four years the work began to feel burdensome. So he shelved it.

“This is something you could only do in a monastery,” he says of his new work. “I had never sculpted heads. I knew what I was supposed to do, but I needed to practice. So I spent a year making heads and then destroying them.”

Back in the studio, Father Nathanael’s newest creation remains in limbo: It could be headed to the abbey store or the island of misfit toys. “This is when I have to start deciding things,” Father Nathanael says, inspecting the protean face in his hand. “Do I want it to be a male or a female? Do I want it to be looking up or down?” He picks at the face absent-mindedly with a wood-handled carving tool.

Father Nathanael’s own Creator carved his head with a broad, balding pate and an ironical smile. He wears black jeans with a black hoodie and black socks. The look says, thoroughly modern monk. But the simplicity of Father Nathanael’s wardrobe says nothing about his own tastes, which lean toward the baroque. Of the abbey’s famously austere, concrete architecture—widely considered one of Marcel Breuer’s masterpieces—Father Nathanael is casually dismissive. “It’s not to my personal taste at all,” he says.

Father Nathanael may have the refined outlook of an aesthete, but he leads a monthly mass in the high-security prison in St. Cloud and spends weekends serving the stolid farmers of Stearns County, making the rounds in the pulpits of tiny towns like St. Rosa, New Munich, and Freeport. “When I first went in,” Father Nathanael recalls, “I said, ‘Listen folks: I’m from L.A. When we were in sixth grade, we had an outing to see a cow—literally.’ That kind of broke the ice.”

When Father Nathanael is creating a crèche doll, he imagines it gracing the mantelpiece in one of these farm homes. “It takes about a week,” to make an angel, he explains. “That’s why I tend to make all the hands at one time and all the heads at one time. They’re unique and good quality, but regular people can afford to have them.”

The original Neapolitan crèche dolls were not meant for the common folk. Instead, elaborate nativity scenes, with hundreds of beasts and townspeople, filled the noble houses of 15th-century Naples, Florence, and Rome. Even today, Naples remains the crèche workshop of the world, with individual dolls—say, a robed magi—selling for $500 or more.

Father Nathanael, by contrast, has no idea how to price, say, a barefoot shepherd in tattered trousers. “I have very little sense of money. In the best sense of the word, we’re the original communists,” he says of the Benedictine credo. “Everything is owned by the order.”

Yet Father Nathanael keeps his own kind of hermitage in this dusty annex—a World War II–era dorm. His 10-foot-long oak table is covered with oddments of his craft: wire doll forms with bendy limbs, bags of thrift-store clothes to cut into tiny costumes, hair in a bag, and glass eyes in a mustard jar. The doll in Father Nathanael’s hands will go through all these stations before it’s finished.

But for now, the face is everything. “There’s not a lot I’d like to do with her,” the monk says, appraising his handiwork. “This one I would almost leave alone.” And with that, Father Nathanael lays the head down amid all his earthly clutter—yet another angel, waiting for her wings.

Michael Tortorello is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.