BY MELISSA SIEGLER
If you have ever wondered about where Franciscan University acquired its beautifully crafted San Damiano crosses or about the origin of some of your favorite Catholic merchandise, the answer is that many of them are products from the hidden gem of a store, Nelson Fine Arts and Gifts, right here in Steubenville.
Mark Nelson and his wife, Gretchen, took over the small woodshop for which he worked in high school and turned it into one of the premier Catholic merchandise companies in the country. In addition to their store, Nelson Fine Arts and Gifts, they also have several online branches including Catholic to the Max, Freedom to the Max and Steubenville Press.
Nelson’s family relocated from Kansas City, Missouri to the Steubenville area when Nelson was in high school in order to be a part of the Catholic community surrounding Franciscan University. Both he and his wife attended Franciscan for a short time before leaving to spend five years doing pro-life missionary work.
With a background in woodwork and a strong, Catholic upbringing, the opportunity to run this business was a perfect fit, but it was something that needed to be profitable.
“It was a good mix of talents and love,” said Nelson. “We immediately began to try to grow the business. … I had a whole lot of drive and a young family to support. I had a lot of reasons to make it successful.”
By being the first in the United States to produce the San Damiano cross, which originated in Assisi, the woodshop had already made a name for itself when Nelson took over.
When the Nelsons bought the shop from the Rev. Sam Tiesi in 1994, they had one client: Franciscan University. At the time they had only 10 products. Now they have more than 75,000 products and are represented in more than 2,000 stores.
They have several big name clients such as EWTN, Leaflet Missal Press and Franciscan University.
Nelson and his wife, along with their nine children, have settled in Steubenville. He is very passionate about the work he is doing and also about bringing life back to the Steubenville area.
“The most rewarding thing about this job is the opportunity to make beautiful things that directly affect people’s spiritual lives and make a difference in the world,” said Nelson. “It’s a direct way of taking our Catholic faith to the world.”
Nelson Fine Arts and Gifts is located in downtown Steubenville and specializes in woodworking, framed artwork, apparel and much more.