Christian artisans in Holy Land sell religious items through Beloit company Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Pat Casucci, Catholic Herald Correspondent   
Thursday, Apr. 04, 2019 -- 12:00 AM
blest art
Jeryes Qumseya, owner of Blest Art Inc. in Beloit, is pictured with some of the hand-carved olive wood pieces he sells, including this large crucifix. (Catholic Herald photo/Pat Casucci)

BELOIT -- In the lands where Jesus walked, for centuries the Christians in and around Bethlehem have earned a living by carving unique religious statues and images from olive wood and selling it to visiting pilgrims.

Today, despite hardship, the artisans continue this tradition. However, now fewer pilgrims and tourists are journeying to the Holy Land, making it difficult for those Christians to support their families.

According to information from Blest Art Inc., Beloit, as a result of these difficulties, there has been a dramatic rise in Christian emigration from the Holy Land. Now less than one percent of the population in the Holy Land is Christian.

Jeryes A. Qumseya, owner of Blest Art Inc., and his company, help these struggling Christian families by marketing and selling the original religious objects in the United States. Thus, many Christian families can maintain their livelihood and their ancestral homes.

He is thankful for his positive relationship with the Catholic Church in the United States and its support of the Holy Land.

Coming to Beloit

The Blest Art Inc. headquarters in Beloit came about in 2003 an interesting way. Qumseya moved to Beloit in 2003 to be near his son who had been awarded a scholarship to study pre-med at Beloit College.

“When I came to Beloit, I was happy. Here it allowed me to open markets in the United States, and the Catholic churches supported us,” he said. “Many bishops and Church authorities met with me and supported my efforts to help the people in Palestine.”

Bowing his head in sadness, he said, “Bishop (Robert) Morlino (the late bishop of Madison) was my friend, and I’m sorry we lost him. We would have wonderful discussions about the Church in the world and how we can take care of it.”

Purchasing art pieces

Especially in the Diocese of Madison, people have the opportunity to purchase these exquisite art pieces due to Qumseya’s zeal and determination. In order to sell the art, Blest Art Inc. sets up attractive display tables at parishes on certain weekends throughout the year.

Housed in the headquarters in Beloit are hundreds of the hand-carved olive wood statues, crucifixes, and a myriad of religious items as well as embroidered items for clergy.

On display in his offices are: statues of the saints, Nativity sets, the Holy Family, the Last Supper, praying hands, the Pieta, items that portray religious scenes, Rosaries, and decorative boxes. They range in size from a few inches high to a five foot crucifix.

A statue of St. Michael the Archangel depicts power and strength. The superior artistry of the carvers is evident in the intricate details in the faces of the statues and the design of their clothing.

Olive wood is a symbol of peace. The most popular olive wood item, according to Qumseya, is the cross showing Jesus crucified.

His heritage

The hand carved products are shipped almost daily from the Holy Land. “I treasure them. They hold special appeal to me because of my heritage,” said Qumseya.

Qumseya is from the Shepherd Field town of Beit Sahour in Palestine. A master carver himself, he recognized his people were not benefiting financially from the sale of their religious carvings to tourists, mainly due to dealing with a middleman system.

He established the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society in 1979, “for my people,” he said. Later the Palestinian Authority, through its tourism group, asked him to establish a union for all the handcrafters, including those making wood carvings, baskets, embroidered items, and mother-of-pearl pieces. He marketed these pieces in Europe. “I dreamed that I could find markets all over the world,” he said.

Qumseya has been honored internationally by various entities for his marketing expertise. He’s particularly proud, but humble, for being named “an ambassador to the world” by the Holy Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. It is the highest honor the Church bestows upon a lay person.

Tradition of carving

He explained that in the Holy Land, the great tradition of hand carving olive wood began around the fourth century, following the construction of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. During years when the Catholic Church was persecuted. If worshippers revered statues, it could result in prison or death or exile.

When the holy pieces were banned, many families continued to carve religious figures from olive wood in the privacy of their homes. Eventually, they sold their religious figures to pilgrims in the Holy Land. They continued this work through the Crusades.

Helping serious situation

He sadly described the Holy Land economy as “miserable” with few jobs and continuing strife with Israel. He said, “Young people may finish high school, but there is no money, no jobs, so they leave the country.”

Qumseya readily discusses the present-day serious situation in the Holy Land and warned, “The holy Christian pieces need to be cared for or they will deteriorate.” He’s hopeful the Christians will stay in their homeland. “They just want a secure life,” he said.

Proud he can help his people, Qumseya said about $600,000 is sent to Christian families in the Holy Land each year. Because he is from near Bethlehem, which is a tourist area, he said, “I go there many times a year to help the people who sell their carving in souvenir shops. My people trust me and my marketing experience. I’m always looking for new ideas.”

He also supports schools, hospitals, youth centers, and other entities in the Holy Land, “all to make the Catholic Church strong,” he added.

Carrying on tradition

He stressed that Blest Art Inc. does not accept any donations for the families he represents. “They do not accept charity. They carve so they can live in dignity,” he said.

Noting that Blest Art Inc. products may cost more than similar items made elsewhere, Qumseya said, “Their (the carvers) Catholic faith, their craftsmanship, and commitment inspire each piece. These are not cheaply made. They are solid and heavy.”

“Christians in the Holy Land, by their art and tradition, are commemorating Jesus Christ, who once walked among them. They are carrying on the tradition,” he said.

Intense in his desire to sell the products, and to help his people in the Holy Land, Qumseya said, “I’m busy every day, and sometimes I work seven days a week.”

For Qumseya, the bottom line goal for Blest Art Inc. “is the security and happiness of the families who carve the products. The families are our most valuable and irreplaceable asset,” he emphasized.

For information about Blest Art Inc. products, call 608-363-9907.

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