In his studio in his serene backyard in Deptford, Frank Seder Jr. meticulously shaved a fine layer along a curve of a wooden crook. A chisel in the wrong direction, the artist noted, could cause an unsightly crack in the majestic, exotic purple wood from South America.
"I have to make sure everything is going to fit perfect," Seder, 65, said while wearing a magnifying-lens headpiece.
Perfect, for the pope.
When Pope Francis travels to Philadelphia to cap the church's eighth World Meeting of Families in September, Seder, a lifelong Catholic and respected South Jersey sculptor, plans to offer the church's top leader the pastoral staff that he has been crafting for three months. The "crosier" will mark Seder's third piece of artwork created for a pope: He completed projects for Francis' two predecessors.
"It's going to be beautiful, it's going to be meaningful, it's going to be spiritual," Seder said.
Some who knew of his past work asked whether he would create something to honor the pope's momentous visit to the area, triggering ideas for a staff, he said.
Using purpleheart wood from South America (a nod to Francis' Argentine roots) for the staff, Seder will cut and steam olive wood from Italy to wrap around the pole as vine (representing Jesus' following). Three lilies - to symbolize the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - made from domestic maple will adorn the staff.
Seder also is installing glass under the arch of two crooks (a deviation from a standard crosier, which has one), and he will etch and carve a chalice and host on the left plate and the church's portrait for the gathering, the Holy Family, on the right. He will paint the backs of each to resemble stained glass. With crooks symbolizing Francis' role as the bishop of Rome, a cross on top of the staff will demonstrate his status as pope.
How, if at all, the crosier will get to the pope isn't known. But Seder said that isn't his concern. The "Staff of the Good Shepherd," as he's labeled it, will be "exactly what it's supposed to be for the pope" - no matter where it ends up, he said.
"If it gets in his hands, that would be wonderful," Seder said. He hopes for another outcome: "to help children who need it."
Seder has directed friends and other contacts interested in donating to his project - which he is working on voluntarily - to Catholic Charities Appeal, a fund-raising initiative of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, with hopes that the money will assist hungry children, those without families, and those who need mental or physical assistance.
On Friday, he said, he delivered a $1,000 check for Catholic Charities sent to him by a client.
The staff "shows his devotion to his faith and his respect of the Holy Father," said Camden Diocese Vicar General Rev. Robert E. Hughes.
Seder approached Hughes to discuss the staff several months ago, Hughes said, and "made it very clear from the very beginning that he in no way wanted to be or needed to be involved with any presentation."
Still, Hughes reached out to organizers of the World Meeting on Seder's behalf. He was told that the event was being inundated with offerings and that a formal presentation to the pope couldn't be accommodated.
"Due to the volume of individuals who wish to present the Holy Father with a gift, we are not able to accept them all on his behalf," Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said in an e-mail. "We will provide information at a later date about any official gifts that might be presented."
Either way, Hughes added, the staff is "a beautiful gesture" on Seder's part.
And a testament to the belief system in which he was raised.
Seder, born to Frank Sr. and Marie Seder and raised on a pig farm in Westville, grew up attending the Most Holy Redeemer church near his family's home. A Gloucester Catholic High School graduate, Seder pursued art courses at several colleges in the region. While he noted he came of age in a Woodstock era - with "long hair and tie-dye and music" - and experienced a time in his early 20s where he wasn't as devout a Catholic as he would have liked, all roads led him back to his faith.
"My grandpop once told me and it kind of stuck . . . 'If you lose your faith, you kind of lose everything,' " he said. "You always keep that in the back of your mind."
Since the 1970s, Seder has done work for the Camden Diocese, including painting several coats of arms for the diocese's bishops, including Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan.
"If you involve God in your heart and in your work," he said, "I think it's more meaningful and more rewarding. You get to learn a little more about the Lord."
In 1992, Seder presented Pope John Paul II a wood sculpture depicting a hand, representing Jesus' forgiveness, that is now at the Vatican. In 2008, he sculpted a red cedar staff representing the power of the Holy Spirit for Pope Benedict XVI, which his daughter, Alexandra, helped bring to Sydney, Australia, for World Youth Day; it remains at St. Mary's Cathedral there.
Seder's work is also on display in the area - an American flag of bricks at the Veterans Memorial Park in Deptford and a bronze soldier that is part of a veterans monument outside the Gloucester County Justice Complex in Woodbury.
His family "has a long, long history here," said Deptford Mayor Paul Medany, who has known Seder's family, including his father, who owned the now-closed Seder's Tavern, most of his life.
"Here's our guy in Deptford working on the staff," Medany said. "It's just cool."
Seder estimates that he has put in upward of 100 hours working on the staff - conceptualizing it, milling the wood, preparing the glass. There's more to do before September.
"It's like a frenzy because you want to get to the bottom of it," Seder said, describing his work flow in his studio. "You want to get to what you see in your mind."
For all the bustle, it was a peaceful setting on a recent afternoon - a near silence was interrupted only by the shaving of the crook's curve, and birds chirping in the distance.
"It's you and your work," Seder said.
But even when it is, it isn't.
"I talk to the Lord all day," he said.