Local artist uses sacred jewelry to spread Gospel

| Kateri Schmidt | July 27, 2017 | 1 Comment

Mary Henseler works on religious medals in the basement studio of her St. Paul home. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

For Mary Henseler, transforming antique religious medals and vintage jewelry into stunning new pieces is a labor of love.

The stay-at-home mother of four lives in St. Paul near the University of St. Thomas.

A parishioner of nearby Nativity of Our Lord, Henseler started her repurposing business, She Sells Sanctuary, in 2012. Five years later, she is a seasoned sacred jewelry artist who has sold hundreds of one-of-a-kind necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings to Catholics across the region. Each piece centers around an antique religious medal or Christian memento.

She describes her art as “taking something old and giving it new life.”

A 1991 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a bachelor of fine arts degree, Henseler, 48, takes her art seriously. Her at-home studio is a treasure trove of finds from countless hours of antiquing. Hundreds of religious medals from the past two centuries are pinned to a bulletin board behind her workspace. A rustic tabletop is crowded with a menagerie of things, from glittering earrings to delicate gold chains to engraved belt buckles. The sheer volume is staggering. Displayed on shelves across the room, finished creations dazzle.

“Sometimes I’ll sit on something for years before I find the right medal,” Henseler said. “I don’t just throw them on a necklace.”

The Wisconsin native is drawn to vintage medals because the detailed artwork surpasses that of most contemporary, mass-produced medals.

“The people who owned these medals loved their faith,” she said. “It’s the past reaching out to the present … and not just the immediate past, but 2,000 years of saints and martyrs.”

Per Catholic tradition, these repurposed medals are not “charms,” but rather physical reminders of God’s love. She encourages her buyers to have the new pieces blessed by a priest or bishop.

Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

From the joyful enthusiasm in Henseler’s voice, one thing is clear: This is a ministry for her. It began in 2011, when, during a thrifting expedition with her niece, Henseler discovered a nail cross pendent with an open space in the center. She brought the cross home and fitted a glass-encased mustard seed into the open space.

Intrigued by the process, she began creating more pieces and selling them to friends. Within five months, she had launched an online store and was selling at local events and Catholic conferences.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Customers reported that the jewelry provided opportunities to talk about their faith.

“That’s been my biggest motivator,” Henseler said. “People started using this as the launching point to evangelize, and I became aware that this was really my ministry.”

With this realization came a devotion to St. John Paul II, the pope who launched the new evangelization and urged artists to use their gifts to bring Christ to the world.

“I’m taking the faith and giving it a breath of fresh air,” Henseler said.

Her jewelry has touched hundreds of lives, including a person who died of cancer and chose to be buried in one of her necklaces. But the real story, Henseler says, is her road to conversion. “It’s not that I make Catholic jewelry that’s special; it’s that I’m Catholic at all,” she said.

Raised in a broken home, Henseler demanded to be taken out of Catholic school when she was 11, and she remained agnostic for 17 years. At age 28, however, she experienced a terrifying dream of hell that changed her life.

“I was floating in darkness, and it was very, very cold, and it was very dark,” she recalled, “and I know I’m absolutely alone.”

Her waking experience was one of absolute terror at having separated herself from God. Determined to reexamine her faith, she enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and was confirmed in 1998. Shortly thereafter, she married Kevin Henseler, had four children in five years and moved to the Twin Cities. In the midst of these major changes, the fire of that initial conversion began to dwindle. As a stay-at-home mom in a new city, she had few friends and no sense of mission.

All of that changed with the call to open She Sells Sanctuary, inspired by the name of a favorite song from high school by the band The Cult. “When I had that moment, that realization that this was a gift to me and this was my charge to do this, it just reignited everything,” she said.

Her business connects her with hundreds of women across the Midwest. It is a part of her ongoing conversion and — she hopes — the conversion of each person she encounters.

“God saved me,” she said. Now, through her art, she aims to proclaim that salvation to the world.

Henseler’s jewelry can be found at She Sells Sanctuary and on Facebook.






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