Jean Sohnly of St. Francis – Fairfield Glade re-melts the candles and forms them into decorative ornaments
By Dan McWilliams
Jean Sohnly hates to see a good church candle go to waste. The parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi in Fairfield Glade has for years taken used candles and re-melted them into crosses, angels, and other designs to hang on Christmas trees. She uses the purple outer wax of Advent candles to make purple crosses as a remembrance for a loved one who has died.
Mrs. Sohnly said she is sad to see candles tossed out.
“I am, because they usually go in the wastebasket, and I don’t think people know that,” she said. “But when you’re in charge of the candles, which I have done at St. Francis, then I know the loss, so now I start collecting them.”
Her general intention is “to make parishes aware of the waste of the loss of the blessed candles, even if it’s only 1 inch or it’s 1 foot, all the Advent candles and the Paschal candle. All those are redone and remelted. Maybe the other parishes would like to do that, and I’ll be glad to help with directions.”
She said she is “absolutely” willing to help any parishioner around the diocese who wants to salvage his or her parish’s candles for a similar use.
Mrs. Sohnly and her husband of 63 years, John, have lived around the country over the years before coming to the Glade 11 years ago. Mr. Sohnly retired from Champion Spark Plug in Toledo, Ohio, while Mrs. Sohnly worked as a nurse. Her candle project began at a parish in the Sunshine State.
“I started it in Florida with just the white candles,” she said. “We had a lot of children. I’d give them for baptism and first Communions, and when young people would get married I’d give them some. I started doing them, and one thing led to another.”
From Nov. 6 to the end of November last fall, Mrs. Sohnly made 400 ornaments from the candles.
“Over the years I’ve really improved my processes. I’ve cut down the time frame,” she said. “It’s like a four- or five-step process. But after you do a few hundred thousand of them, you get faster. If someone wants to know my process, I’d be more than happy to show them. It’s an undertaking, but it’s one of love.”
The process has been honed over time.
“I collect all the old candles,” Mrs. Sohnly said. “I cut out the wicks. I re-melt them down in pans. When they’re liquid, I put them into a container. I have to pour one mold first, a half a mold. As soon as they’re set, then I have to put in a hanger. That takes time — you have to watch them to do that.
“Once the hangers are in, then I pour a second set. And then when that’s set I put them in my refrigerator. And then when they’re done I take them into my back room. I have a glue gun. I take out the glue stick and use the heat end, and then I dress every one of them off so they’re smooth. Usually when you pour there’s overrun, so you don’t want that.”
One pot of melted wax will make 40 pieces.
Mrs. Sohnly has made more than 900 ribbon hangers in the past year for the ornaments.
“They’re time-consuming because you have to do them just right. After you get them twisted, then you have
to dip them in liquid wax and dip them in water so they stay.
“I’ve been so blessed — people have been donating this particular type of ribbon for me.”
The funeral ornaments are given “to people to put in their home. They can put them anywhere as long as they know they’re blessed and to treat them with reverence,” Mrs. Sohnly said.
Until now, her production of funeral ornaments has largely been a parish secret.
“People over the years have been donating a few of their old Advent candles and stuff, so I’m blessed that they know I’m doing this,” she said. “But most people don’t know that I’m doing this, the purple ones — I try to keep that quiet.”
Mrs. Sohnly takes the ornaments to residents of nursing homes and shut-ins—“any Christian people — it doesn’t have to be a Catholic. The children love them. I know people collect them now. I’ll go to them and they’ll have half a dozen of these.”
The death of the Sohnlys’ daughter, Suzanne, an aerospace engineer who was a failure analysis specialist for the International Space Station, led Mrs. Sohnly to make the funeral ornaments.
“She inspired me to do the funeral ones because it meant so much to have something special, and knowing that these are all blessed,” she said. “The way I package them to give to the people — I leave that package with the organist, our music director, and he gives them to the people, so they don’t know who it is. They think it’s just from the church.”
Suzanne Sohnly died at age 48 exactly two years to the day, Dec. 2, that Mrs. Sohnly spoke to The East Tennessee Catholic.
“She was a beautiful artist,” her mother said. “She designed some of the patches that went up to space. She was a beautiful, wonderful girl.”
Mrs. Sohnly puts a note with each of the funeral ornaments.
“The note tells the [deceased person’s] name, their death, their birth, and their interment and the priest who was there, and then I have ‘eternal rest grant unto them’ with a prayer, and at the end it says ‘these were candles made from the altar of St. Francis,’ so they know where they came from,” she said.
With the funeral ornaments, “you can hang them on a tree. You can put them by a picture. You can do anything, as long as you’re respectful,” Mrs. Sohnly said.
She shows no signs of slowing down with her candle project.
“I love doing these things,” she said.
For more information on starting your own candle project, call St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fairfield Glade at 931-484-3628.