Putting Her Faith in Dolls to Spread the Word

Times Staff Writer

Some ministries rely on Scripture, music and dynamic preachers to spread the faith. Teri O'Toole's ministry relies on cotton, paint and rubber.

The 53-year-old graphic designer sold her home to finance Soft Saints, a line of stuffed dolls she hoped would inspire youths to model their lives after someone who had lived an ambitiously pious life. Five years later, her squeezable saints have barreled past their intended audience and found homes in the arms of an entirely different group. Along the way, O'Toole forged an intimate bond with Marie Trotechaud, her 99-year-old grandmother. O'Toole may produce role models, but Trotechaud is hers.

O'Toole's timing was perfect. When Soft Saints launched in 2001, she unwittingly joined a growing market.

Religious dolls are "definitely a trend, a very successful one," said Alan Napleton, founder of the Catholic Marketing Network, which promotes Catholic items such as statues, rosaries and, now, holy figures in miniature. New Catholic shops are cropping up each month, he said, and for the first time since the 1940s and '50s, they're gaining momentum in a business long led by evangelical Christians.

Many stores carry dolls such as Soft Saints or Faith-Filled Friends, stuffed biblical characters whose makers, a pair of stay-at-home moms, encourage parents to give their tykes saints to take to Mass in lieu of action figures or Barbies.

One2believe, another California-based company, takes religious education a step further with its Messengers of Faith dolls, which recite Scripture at the push of a button in an "easy to memorize style."

O'Toole had no such toys while growing up, but her childhood was infused with faith. She grew up in the hills of Tustin, the second of 12 children in a devout Roman Catholic home. Rather than playing house or dress-up, she and her sister Debbie would play Mass, substituting their mother's dessert goblets for chalices and Wonder Bread for the Communion wafers.

Nowadays, she attends Mass daily at 6:30 a.m., takes theology classes at the Diocese of Orange and teaches catechism.

Her decision to enter artisanship followed two years of caring for a cancer-stricken friend. When he died, she thought: "If I could change just one life, I would be grateful."

She and her creative partner Celeste Galanger, who lives in Oregon, decided that goal could best be achieved from the inside of their business out. They employ only stay-at-home moms to do any extra needlework or assembly. O'Toole, a single mother who raised four boys, said she always wished she could have been home with her children.

She had never sculpted anything before sitting at her kitchen table one day with a wooden spoon and a wad of clay to mold her first head -- St. Jerome, the cantankerous monk who translated parts of the Bible.

Before she begins, O'Toole looks to history for inspiration and information, studying the saint's life along with any images she can find, real or rendered. When she crafted St. Patrick, an abbot lent her his miter and staff. When working on St. Veronica, she met with a retired nun who had lived in Galilee.

Recently, O'Toole set to work on the head of a Baby Jesus doll, which she planned to give away at Santa Ana's St. Francis Home, the assisted-living facility where her grandmother lives. She had often noticed the nuns' kindness toward Trotechaud, but when her grandmother fell ill a few months ago and her need for attention became greater, O'Toole's appreciation grew.

She works in a cramped garage in Tustin, where heavy-duty tools loom over tiny shoes and boxes of wigs conceal the usual garage dwellers such as old bikes and holiday paraphernalia. Clear plastic bags of limbs marked "female feet, no shoes" and "Baby Jesus arms" dangle from the walls, and 60 heads lie unblinking on a table.

First, O'Toole grabbed a Minute Maid juice jug filled with a "top secret" liquid and poured 26 grams -- as prescribed by a smudged cheat sheet taped to a wooden rack above -- into an empty Yoplait cup for mixing. After transferring the blended goop into a Del Taco cup containing a mold of Jesus' likeness -- as imprinted by O'Toole's original sculpture -- it was time for the "Roto-Cast."

For the mixture to dry evenly, the cups must be turned for hours. High school volunteers once managed the wrist-straining job; now, a machine that O'Toole customized handles it.

After the dolls' heads graduate from the Roto-Cast, they are painted and attached to bodies, which are dressed with outfits sewn on O'Toole's 18th birthday present: a mint-green Sears Kenmore sewing machine.

While she poured and stirred, the coifed and lipsticked entrepreneur wore a glittering opal cross pendant, latex gloves -- "If you don't, your hands get real 'ew' " -- and a forest green Williams-Sonoma apron, giving her a kooky panache: June Cleaver turned mad scientist.

Asked how many dolls she pumps out each year, O'Toole laughed. "My dad is always asking me that too." She has no idea. She said she didn't get into doll making to turn a profit, "so what does it matter?" She conducts most of her business at home, fielding orders and special requests from her Soft Saints website. Each sells for $98.

Although the Baby Jesus is now one of her biggest sellers, she crafted the original as a Mother's Day gift for her grandmother. Trotechaud loved it, but thought something was missing.

"Teri, he's cold," she complained, noting that the baby wore only a gown.

"Grandma," O'Toole said, "he's a doll."

Her grandmother said it didn't matter. He looked cold. Now every Baby Jesus comes with a white blanket. Trotechaud sleeps with her doll, and during the day, he rests on a yellow silk pillow.

Until a few months ago, Trotechaud helped assemble the dolls. She always had a pile of headless and limbless doll bodies beside her bed, which she stuffed while watching Mass on the Eternal Word Television Network. "I don't know if they're going to be the pope or Mary," she'd often say.

These days, the work is beyond her. "I'm sorry I can't stuff more dolls," she says over and over when O'Toole visits.

On a recent visit to the St. Francis Home, O'Toole brought a bundle of her creations to give away. She routinely donates dolls for church raffles and silent auctions around the country but said there's no greater joy than visiting a retirement home or an assisted-living facility and seeing how the residents react to hugging one of her dolls: how they smile, how their voices soften -- it's why she does what she does.

About 50 women watched as O'Toole filled a table with 27 saints, all 18 inches high. As O'Toole spoke and quizzed the group, Trotechaud sat off to the side in her wheelchair, hands clasped in her lap, smiling.

The ladies gasped when they learned that St. Patrick was Scottish, not Irish, but quickly rebounded with knowing nods as they correctly identified the doll with the brown robes as St. Francis, whose thrice-knotted white cord signified the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Mary Evanoff squealed when O'Toole revealed that St. Jerome was two dolls in one. When flipped over, Jerome's gown slips down to reveal a lion -- a witty nod to the story of the saint removing a thorn from a lion's paw.

When it came time to read the first red raffle ticket, Rubie Nelson, 81, discovered that she had lucky No. 237. She looked a little perplexed as O'Toole handed her a Baby Jesus doll.

"Isn't he pretty?" Nelson said, brushing the doll's cheek. "He doesn't have a mustache. That's good." She pressed the doll to her chest and wrapped her knit cardigan snugly around him. "I have to keep him warm."

Later, as she prepared to leave, O'Toole carefully returned various saints, including Mary's mother, St. Anne, to the trunk of her sport utility vehicle.

If the saint looks familiar, it's for a good reason. O'Toole modeled the face after her grandmother.

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