Story of a Wooden Cross

Carpenter carved crucifix from old chapel floor

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

When the St. Mary's Chapel floor was replaced last year for the first time since being built in 1917, Lead Carpenter Michael George Roper saved a five-foot section of the old oaken floorboard between the sacristy and altar. From it Roper carved a handsome crucifix that now hangs prominently in the chapel foyer.

"A lot of old Jesuits walked on this," he said of the oak floor that went into the cross. "Hundreds, maybe thousands."

Roper added a bit of his own history to the wooden crucifix: The inscription "INRI," an abbreviation of the Latin for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews , " is one of the earliest carvings Roper ever did, as a boy of 10 in County Donegal, Ireland.

"It was a piece of sycamore, a piece of firewood I whittled with a knife," he recalled. "I carried it for years."

Every piece of wood has its own story, said Roper, who for nearly 40 years has maintained the campus' woodwork, from classroom lecterns to the ceremonial mace used at Commencement.

"Wood is a beautiful thing," he said. "It's something that lives."

Since joining the carpentry staff at Boston College in 1960, four years after emigrating from Ireland, Roper has practiced artistry with wood in ways large and small throughout the campus. He has fashioned the large crosses used at Masses on O'Neill Plaza and at Conte Forum, made podiums used at Commencement, as well as the stand used to hold honorary degrees, and more than once has been called to repair the University mace.

Michael George Roper with the crucifix now hanging in St. Mary's Chapel.

One of his most recent assignments was to make a desk set for University President William P. Leahy, SJ. His more unusual tasks have included constructing elaborate stage-sets for plays done on Bapst Lawn and at the old McHugh Forum on the occasion of the University Centennial in 1963.

He and his wife, Barbara, live in the Ashmont section of Dorchester, and his four children are all graduates of Boston College. "The kids and myself grew up here," said Roper, whose ties to the campus date back to the late 1950s when he attended Irish ceili dances in Campion Hall.

He took up carpenter's tools as a young man in Ballyshannon, where he attended trade school and worked as a cabinet-maker before moving to the United States.

In his spare time, he carves wooden miniatures, such as scale models of chairs or horse-drawn carts. He made a commemorative plaque that was presented to University Chancellor J. Donald Monan, SJ, upon his retirement as president.

But Roper says he finds particular reward in making crucifixes, an endeavor in which he applies his religious faith to his carpenter's craft.

It took him a few hours to make the 12-by-8-inch cross that has hung since last month in the St. Mary's Chapel foyer. The metal figure of Christ crucified he transferred from an old crucifix he found at a yard sale.

He also likes to make the crosses for gifts. For a cousin who had been a sign painter at the old Baker chocolate plant in Dorchester Mills, Roper fashioned a crucifix out of wood from a demolished building at the site. For his son Sean, who had worked as a park ranger out West, he made one from a piece of lodge-pole pine from Wyoming.

"It gives you a good feeling when you make one of them," he said. "When I see a nice piece of wood with a beautiful grain, I say, 'That would make a marvelous crucifix.'"

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