Wheeling Priest Is a Fan of the Cross
What might be unusual would be the staggering tally if they were ever actually counted.
Bounding up and down the stairways and passages at St. Matthew Episcopal Church in downtown Wheeling, the associate rector points out crosses that are literally everywhere.
“Look, here’s another one,” he said before quickly moving on to find the next in an interview that quickly became a version of an Easter egg hunt.
Clover-shaped crosses repeat across the sanctuary ceiling. Maltese crosses are woven into the cloth that covers the altar.
The symbol is found on door windows and decorative ironwork. It is loosely interpreted by figures’ very bodies in stained glass. A small, yet elaborate cloisonne version called the Trinity Cross links today’s Wheeling to its Old World past inside a tiny chapel.
Yet, it’s in Skaggs’ office that the crosses take on the most personal note. There, perched on a table and hanging from the walls are a collection assembled over a lifetime spent first as a teacher and finally as a priest.
One cross bridges the two vocations.
It’s a small one, dangling from the end of a plain, black rosary that hangs on the wall behind his desk. It’s one of three rosaries — one “broken from much use” — Skaggs uses on a near daily basis even though he says the Anglican prayers his English ancestors would have known and biblical psalms rather than the traditional Roman Catholic version.
“This was the rosary used by the Sisters of the Visitation at Mount de Chantal,” said Skaggs, who taught at the former all-girls school for 35 years before entering ministry. “When they wore full habits, that would be hanging from the belt. That one is pretty special to me. I really loved the sisters and the teaching career they provided to me.”
Skaggs gave an impish grin when asked how he managed to acquire a cloistered nun’s rosary.
“I stole it,” he jokes.
He technically rescued the rosary from where it had laid in an abandoned part of the sprawling campus, which has since been razed.
The remaining sisters from the order of nuns who operated the Roman Catholic school have since relocated to another state.
“Being nosy, I was wandering, and I found it and hung it up in my classroom,” Skaggs explained. “No one ever said anything, so I guess it was OK … It helps me concentrate, just the tactile part of it.”
He also has a small metal cross from the former academy that stands on a lamp table. It was originally a crucifix, Skaggs noted, but the figure of Jesus went missing at some point before it became his. He likes to imagine the cross was once in one of the cloistered cells.
Other crosses in Skaggs’ collection are much newer.
A handful are from a gift set and are a sampling of the various shapes and styles the Christian symbol has taken over time, place and faith tradition. In addition to the Roman Catholic versions, he has a Celtic cross, the symbol of the Episcopal church, adorning his office door.
That cross includes a circle where the two lines intersect.
Other versions, including his favorite cross of all, have a look more reminiscent of Orthodoxy.
The favorite, a replica of the 12th century cross of San Damiano, is technically an icon, he noted.
The original painted wood cross was installed in an Italian church by St. Francis of Assisi.
“It was this little church where he (Francis) heard God tell him to build his church,” Skaggs said. “So, he did, with his friends.”
It was a gift from one of Skaggs’ friends who died of cancer. “I just thought it was lovely,” he said of hanging it across from his desk so that he can see it whenever he looks up.
The cross is covered with figures that tell the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, resurrection and ascension to heaven – including the details.
There’s even a tiny rooster at Jesus’s knee to reference Peter’s denial of knowing Christ.
“I can just sit and stare at it,” Skaggs said of the nearly three-foot tall icon. “There’s something about it. I don’t know what exactly.”
He looked at it some more during the interview and offered two possibilities for why it resonates. For one, the unknown painter – possibly a Syrian monk – depicted Jesus as standing deliberately in front of the cross rather than hanging in agony. “Jesus is not a corpse.”
For another, there is a tiny vignette at the top of the cross that depicts angels welcoming Jesus back to heaven at the time of ascension. That is unusual in Skaggs’ experience of cross imagery.
“When you do iconography, you don’t paint it, you write the story,” he explained. “It’s interesting in that it includes the ascension also, because the resurrection isn’t complete without the ascension. The resurrection released him from death, but the ascension returned him to heaven.”
That’s kind of the point of the story, he added, saying he realizes that such nuance is often lost in today’s world.
“I think sometimes, sadly, it just becomes artwork,” Skaggs said. “I’m not sure it has great meaning to people.”