Story by Nikki Rajala
Tildy (Mueller) Ellis, now 92, considers her progress on the newest Nativity set that she’s creating. For their garments, she fingers handwoven fabrics and small items in her senior apartment at Assumption Court in Cold Spring.
The figure of the Mother of God is wrapped in a dark blue swatch with multicolor threads. Over it, Tildy drapes a thick shawl of a different fabric.
“Mary often wears something blue so maybe I’ll use part of this hand-woven cushion cover. Its border is a soft hue that matches her expression,” she said.
She propped up the paper mâché heads of Baby Jesus and Joseph in cups to dry — the topcoat of gesso mixed with granite dust needs more time before she can paint the final details. Though it’s early November, she ponders on these figures every day, a kind of prayer with each decision. When she finishes, this Holy Family will be displayed for residents and visitors at the Assumption community.
She lifts a basket. “I thought this was too big for the baby’s cradle. But filled with straw and a sheepskin, it could work. And for Joseph, I found some wool with brown stripes, which is just what he needs.”
Over the years, she’s created large Nativity sets, complete with kings and shepherds, for nearby parishes — among them St. Mary’s Cathedral and St. John the Baptist in Collegeville, and as far away as Columbia Heights.
Tildy thumbed through a photo album with some of the figures she’s created. Each has its own personality, with connections to people she knows.
“We are represented by our contributions, so many figures contain small details of people that are special — my father’s professor in Cologne, Germany, a friend who died of AIDS, even our dog Muttly was memorialized in a scene,” she said.
“One year I modeled the old shepherd after the hired man who worked for years at Grandma Ellis’ farm. For his garb I used overalls fabric, and he carried a string of fish as his gift to Baby Jesus. I like to include a shepherd boy or girl with disabilities. Once a young boy with Down Syndrome was able to carry his part of the set in the processional — a big event for him.”
Because the king characters represent the world, spanning Black, Oriental and Meso-american cultures, she’s used plush leopard-printed fabric, red silk with gold designs and colorful weavings from across the globe.
To clothe the figures, she browsed garage sales for fabrics and jewelry — a bracelet might become a king’s crown. Since most characters have things in their hands, she searched for tiny containers for the kings’ gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, baskets the shepherds might carry, filled with apples or diapers, a lantern or a flute for a shepherd child. At Epiphany Baby Jesus received a crown and velvet throw.
Tildy builds the figures using diverse household materials — granite core samples, foam pool noodles, heavy electricians’ wire, Styrofoam eggs and paper mâché.
“I like using my fingers to create with bits and pieces. I work best with something soft, like paper mâché, to shape the faces. I experiment using wire bodies, bending them to express various scenes. For each figure’s hands, I shape wire forms and sew Ultrasuede gloves — one of the last steps,” she said.
“It’s about play and discovery — finding which things fit and how. This kind of creativity I receive in concepts — it’s a gift that I can and do share with others.”
She reminisced at how she began her own ministry of creating crèches, which started with her mother, a young woman in Cologne, Germany.
Tildy said, “My mother, Therese, was hospitalized with a serious liver ailment and told she might never be able to have children. She asked Franz, her husband-to-be, for a small chunk of wood and to borrow his pocketknife. While bedridden, she began carving a head, and praying, as her form of occupational therapy, and used corners of hospital sheets to suggest garment folds. At home she finished the figure — it was Joseph. Carving the heads and hands of the Holy Family began her tradition, which became our family’s Nativity set.”
Tildy is their first-born, named Mechthild, for the medieval German Christian poet. Two more sisters were born in Germany.
When her father, who was active with her mother in the German Catholic Youth Movement, saw SS troops surrounding a Protestant church where he and a group of young men had compiled lists of possible members, he understood their risk of being arrested. In about 1936, the family emigrated to St. Louis, Missouri, where her father taught at St. Louis University. Tildy began school and two brothers were born. Later the family moved to St. Paul.
“Over the years my mother carved kings and the shepherds for our family crèche. The angel was one of her last figures, when we were all in grade school.”
After Tildy graduated from the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, she began teaching.
“In Biwabik, Minnesota, that first experience, my students made a Christmas set for the school’s entrance. One boy who wasn’t ‘into’ art volunteered to make a camel, using brown paper towels for the camel’s hide. It turned out magnificently — the only camel I’ve ever had.”
In 1962, she met and married Stewart Ellis, and settled in Cold Spring, where he was busy as a veterinarian with a large animal practice. Between homework help and laundry for their three sons, Tildy experimented with her own artistic endeavors.
In addition to her unique Nativity sets, Tildy’s expertise in visual liturgical arts and fabric design landed her a spot on the diocesan liturgical committee, where she helped design and stitch banners celebrating the diocese’s 100th anniversary and the vestments and stoles for priests, deacons and bishops.
“My work is prayer. Just making these figures is prayer. Especially as I work on a figure, I remember details of a person, like all the things the hired hand did for Grandma Ellis, or my father’s professor in Germany, or the others who’ve made their ways into the scenes,” she said.
“The patches and holes in the shepherd man’s clothing or the granny shawl for the old shepherd woman remind us that the poor were the first on the scene. The whole point is our being at Christ’s crib is that it’s for everyone — no one gets left out.”
Photography by Dianne Towalski
To view the final versions of Tildy Ellis’ Holy Family, visit thecentralminnesotacatholic.org.