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'Ministry of the Walking Stick' shares insight into God's love

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AKRON, Ohio — An old stick in the woods might not conjure much emotion for someone on a woodland hike, but for Les Johnson a stick is the start of a prayerful journey.


Johnson turns Mother Nature's castaways into beautiful walking sticks. Before he finds a stick and after its discovery, he is in the midst of prayer, discerning just who he should gift with a piece created through what he believes is divine inspiration.

The 78-year-old retired sheet metal worker who looks like Santa Claus is not finished finding people who could use one of his sticks. He's at 828 walking sticks and counting.

"I'm not supposed to sell them. The Lord told me not to sell them. You give them away," Johnson said.

The secular Franciscan's story is built on the rock of faith and encompasses a 50-year journey that began when he was a Boy Scout chaplain. Along the way he met a pope — St. John Paul II — and traveled to Lourdes in France and Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina to learn about and from Mary, who he says has taught him about Jesus.

He has been so inspired by Mary and her message of peace for the world that he and his son, Daniel, 45, have constructed a mission on his son's 1890s-era property in Akron's North Hill neighborhood. Called the Mission of San Damiano, it is named for the church St. Francis rebuilt in 13th-century Italy.

The small city lot on a main street includes a 16-foot crucifix and outdoor grottos with statues of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Padre Pio, St. Anthony of Padua and others. There is even a year-round Nativity scene. A stone path through the shaded backyard takes visitors on a short walk helping them become immersed in prayer and reflection.

Father and son also have turned an old carriage house into a chapel, which they call the Shrine of Our Lady of San Damiano. A refurbished statue of Mary and 10-foot cross with a crown of thorns from Jerusalem are the dominant features inside. It's here where Johnson comes for inspiration summer and winter.

Each walking stick Johnson creates is unique. Whether elaborate or simple in design, each is crafted over the course of four or five days for a particular individual even when Johnson doesn't yet know the recipient. He takes no credit for the stick he harvests and designs.

"I give them to whoever God tells me to," says the parishioner at St. Vincent Church.

Early on, Johnson admits to selling a few custom-made sticks. But one batch in which he inlaid antique stones and spent a lot of time in the process ended up having boring insects living inside. Those he burned.

"I learned my lesson," he recalls. "I never sold them again."

It was in 1980 that Johnson had a revelation that confirmed his calling to create walking sticks. It followed his Aug. 31, 1979, meeting with Pope John Pau II  in St. Peter's Square where he gave the pope one of his walking sticks — one which he claims he felt a charge of electricity when he chose the wood from a pile he had collected over months.

That meeting alone was enough to shake Johnson to the core, especially after seeing the pope's ring with an image of fish on it. "It's Peter. It's the fisherman," he recalls thinking. He's not afraid to admit that tears of joy fell from his eyes.

Each stick is carefully stripped of its bark, sanded smooth, stained and then covered in layers of urethane for protection and longevity. Depending on how elaborate it is supposed to be, Johnson will carve intricate designs or inlay medals, stones or a small crucifix.

Recipients get a certificate of sorts with the number of the stick written in it. The brochure tells the story of the "Ministry of the Walking Stick" and offers a few words of inspiration on enjoying God's creation. The cover has a self-portrait — a caricature — of Johnson in a hiking coat, a University of Notre Dame cap atop his head, and birds and a squirrel at his side. Of course, he's carrying a walking stick.

Johnson is not sure who will get walking stick 829. He says he does not yet know who's next on God's list.

He offers one bit of advice to those he gifts with a stick.

"Take a hike."


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017