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Rev. Thomas Davies Clay's Inspirational Cathedral Quest—& Remarkable Cathedral Models

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"A quest to experience the great cathedrals and historic churches of Europe," through travel — and paper models…

Crenelations and diamond-patterned tiles ring the spires, and flying buttresses the apse of the Church of Our Lady — Budapest's 13th century St. Matthias Cathedral — in Thomas Davies Clay's superb 3-D Karton paper model. (Photo courtesy Thomas Davies Clay.) 

Thomas Davies Clay on his Cathedral Quest, with the lacy flying buttresses of St. Barbara's Church — begun in 1388 and not completed until 1905 — in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic. (Photo courtesy Thomas Davies Clay.) 
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It's always a pleasure when you get in touch with me — just click Contact, on top of the page — and a special treat hearing from Philip Charlton, who wrote, a few weeks ago, from England:

"Like your good self, I've been busy cobbling together some things for Christmas. The varnish is drying on the 1940s Vintage Creche as I type.

"Although I'm not a crèche maniac (they are called Nativity scenes where I come from), I've been active in building and collecting paper models of all kinds since I was a schoolboy. Your site is very entertaining and thank you for the Free Downloads.

"My wife Sue and I (she's the photographer and modeler in her own right) are currently working on a Christmas Album on our Photobucket Gallery. It will include two Santas, a Christmas wreath, a couple of tree decorations and a nice Nativity — sorry, crèche — from Bohemia. It should be ready in a couple of days; I'll inform you as to where and when. Best Wishes for the Festive Season, Philip."

I was enjoying browsing Phillip and Sue's wonderful creations when another message arrived from Philip with a tantalizing proposition: would I consider opening the Crèchemania and Paper Model Kiosk Forum?

The rest, as they say, is history.

Philip has proved a veritable Sherlock Holmes in unearthing Vintage Models and Paper Cut Outs, and Bible Paper Toys, and is sleuthing for more, "wonderful stuff out there," that he posts to the Forum for the benefit of paper modelers everywhere.

Then there was Philip's Traveling Man Forum post:

"Hello All,

"I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Thomas Clay, a retired Episcopal minister residing in Maryland, USA. His mission is to visit all the great religious buildings of Europe. He's been to quite a few already but hasn't stopped yet. He is also a keen paper modeleler and tries to build a model (if one is available) of all the places he's been to. Not only cathedrals, churches, and the like, but secular buildings too.

"If you enjoy Alexis's In Search of The Nativity series I think you might enjoy Thomas's travels as well. So I invite you to visit his Cathedral Quest web site where you will find, apart from the details of his journeys, lots of pictures of his built models. They are very nice. Philip."

As you can imagine, having just returned from an 11,000 mile trip in Search of the Nativity myself, I was thrilled at the thought of meeting someone who has visited — and shared on the Web —all those spiritual, far away places.

The list, itself, on the Cathedral Quest home page, and its mission, "Our quest to experience the great cathedrals and historic churches of Europe," is a veritable Grand Tour: England 2003, Italy 2004, France 2005, Paris 2006, Germany 2007, Italy 2008, Spain 2009, Central Europe 2011…

And there he is, in his clerical collar photo next to his pithy online biography, "My life in Nine Sentences," the Reverent Thomas Davies Clay — Episcopal Priest, world-traveler, gifted writer and editor of the prodigious Cathedral Quest website.

Berlin Cathedral rises in Berlin's Schlozzplatz — and in Thomas Davies Clay's home: his beautiful Schreiber-Bogen model. (Photo courtesy Thomas Davies Clay.) 
And did I mention paper model enthusiast?

"Please, call me Thomas," he says from the lower level of his Maryland home one recent morning. "What a wonderful surprise to hear from you, Alexis. Thank you for your kind words about my site. I have enjoyed exploring your blog (I am never quite sure what a blog is since I have never blogged!) I especially enjoyed your beautiful site and reading about the Berliner Dom. Your photos, especially the video, are spectacular. Your descriptions, exceptional.

"Isn't Berlin Cathedral a great church? And a beautiful model. I'm looking at it — along with the other 50 cathedral and church paper models I have made.

"I have my desk down here, my computer, my workshop in the next room, my train layout in another room with a wall-full of model cars and ship. This where I live most of the time, with all my paper models and my Cathedral Quest memories.

"I grew up in the church, and when I was eight-years-old I became a server. In High School I had decided I wanted to be an orthodontist: I had gone to one for six years, and with every twist of that wire, it seems, was worth several hundred dollars. So I thought that would be a good living!

"But during an Episcopal Church Youth Conference in the mountains of East Kentucky,during the summer between my Junior and Senior year in High School, I felt the need to climb one of the mountains by myself (this was against camp rules). While sitting there by myself, I had a Moses type of experience. I heard an inner voice telling me, 'I want you to go into the priesthood.' That night around a bonfire, the bishop talked about leaves; how each leaf was unique and each had a purpose. I felt he was talking directly to me.

"I thought about it; prayed about it for a long time; even wrote the bishop and told him that I really wanted to be an orthodontist! He wrote back, saying that it's important for children to have straightened teeth — but it's even more important to have straightened souls! This was in 1955. I graduated from high school in 1956, from college in 1960 and I went directly to the seminary. I was ordained 49 years ago.

"For the next 35 years I served parishes in Richmond, Kentucky; Washington, North Carolina; LaGrange, Georgia; Front Royal, Virginia; and California, Maryland. I retired from active parish ministry in 1998 at age 60. In 2000 we built our retirement home in Maryland, just fifteen miles south of Washington, D.C.

Destroyed during the bombing of Dresden, Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) was reconstructed after World War II and stands as a symbol of reconciliation — and faith. (Photo courtesy Thomas Davies Clay.) 
"That's where I spent five rewarding years as a docent at Washington Cathedral. Twenty-five to thirty groups of students — many busloads, from all over the country — would come through in a day. Those children, most of them eighth graders, would come in — and their mouths would drop open.

"There was something there that these kids were enthralled by. Were they awe-struck by the beauty of the Cathedral? Was it the presence of God, a taste of heaven (as we say of the cathedral)? The beauty of the sacred art — the stained glass windows, alone, are magnificent — the sheer height of those Gothic arches, there's so much there to draw you in, and leave you speechless.

"I know the feeling, because I experienced it when I was fifteen and saw the Washington Cathedral for the first time. It wasn't finished then, but I was amazed, and I remember going back again and again. Since 1978, I have lived within 60 miles, so I would visit quite often.

"When I saw a notice that they were looking for docents I applied, and they were glad to have a priest.

"After one of my Cathedral tours, I came home one day and said to my wife, 'I think I'd like to go to England and visit the cathedrals there.' She nearly fell over, but had the plane reservations that night.

"That was the beginning — England 2003 : St. Paul's, Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, Wells Cathedral, Bath Abbey.

"I wrote to each church, telling them that I was an Episcopal priest, a docent, and that sometimes we gave behind-the-scenes tours at the Washington Cathedral. Did they offer such tours?

"I was delighted to get responses from all of them. At Canterbury Cathedral, for example, just to mention one example, it was remarkable: we had a private tour with a canon, the head vestiturer, and a docent. Three wonderful people — for just my wife and me! They took us to a small room that overlooked the chapel downstairs where Thomas Becket had lain. The monks had used this little room to guard his body, and the docent said, 'I've been here twenty years — and I've never seen this room before!'

"We also visited the sacristy where we were shown the Archbishop of Canterbury’s cope. The canon said “try it one” and there's a picture of me on my website wearing the Archbishop of Canterbury's cope.

"Often, wood and paper models I made influenced next year's Cathedral Quest itinerary. And I discovered that building models of the cathedrals I was planning to visit enhanced my experience.

Thomas Davies Clay's Amiens Cathedral is made up of 636 pieces and required over 3,877 cuts. (Photo courtesy Thomas Davies Clay.) 
"I spent over 300 hours making a 38-inch-tall wooden model of Amiens Cathedral, an amazing piece of scrollwork, designed by Al Spicer of Greensboro, North Carolina. The model contains 636 pieces and has 3,877 inside cuts. That means I drilled almost 4,000 holes, with a drill bit the size of a needle, threading the saw blade through each hole, often for a little cut that took no more than a couple of seconds!

"Naturally, after making the clock I wanted to see the real Cathedral. Ten years before, I had made a model of Chartres Cathedral and Mont St. Michel, not knowing where either was located — or much else about these beautiful places. So, anxious to see Amiens, Chartres, and Mont St. Michel, we headed to France.

"After visiting Amiens Cathedral, I made a correction to my second clock: I printed a photo of the rose window on acetate and replaced the clock face with the stained glass window. It looks very nice.

"That's been the fun part. You spent do much time building these models, like I did building Melk Abbey, before visiting Austria. I had my camera, taking photographs of Melk as I was building it, and a stopwatch: it took me 33 hours to build it.

"When I went to Melk, one of the world's most famous monasteries overlooking the Danube, I couldn't help myself saying, 'There's that little fountain!' Of course, in real life, that fountain wasn't so little at all. Or, 'Look at all those dormers! They were so hard to put on, I had to use tweezers!' People would look at me funny.

"Once I visited a cathedral before I had a chance to finish its model, and being there gives you a feeling of dèjá vu. Then, when I returned home and started working on the model again, I found me talking to myself: 'Oh, that's where that little roof is.' That's the fun part of it.

"In the past eight years we have been in nine countries, 60 cities — to Paris, Venice and Florence twice — and we have visited 172 churches, 49 of them cathedrals. We have also seen 8 castles and 4 palaces, plus a number of famous public buildings. And I can see them all in my mind's eye. Sometimes I might get the inside of the churches confused, but I do have the pictures — thousands of them!

"On our 2009 trip to Spain some people said, 'Churches? You've seen one, you've seen them all!' But that's not true: every single one is different. That's what I try to get across when I give tours or write for my Web page."

Is there a church or cathedral that stands out in Thomas' mind?

"There's something about Reims Cathedral that stands out. Something so beautiful about the Cathedral façade. Or maybe it's the way Reims is outlined against the sky — so many cathedrals are crowded by other nearby buildings — that I love it so much. I even have a picture of me toasting the Cathedral at a small champagne shop across the square, with Reims in the background.

"A couple of years ago, I found a print of Reims Cathedral in an antique store, and when I heard the price, I said no, thanks. But I walked around the block, and went back and got it. It's hanging in our dining room, where we eat every night, and I love looking at it.

We are as much in awe of young Thomas using a 4 x 5 camera — a marvelous, but bulky and slow apparatus — to shoot a football game, as we are of Rev. Thomas Davies Clay's prodigious Cathedral Quest. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Davies Clay.) 
"But it isn't just Reims, of course; I love looking at pictures of cathedrals. I have so many feelings: awe, in the presence of God and the beauty of a cathedral's sacred art; amazement at all the history that has taken place there; admiration for the faith of those who build these cathedrals for the glory of God; and lasting gratitude for those who rebuilt them after many were destroyed because of fire or war, like Dresden's Frauenkirche."

What a splendid church — and model! (See photo, above left). And speaking of models, does Thomas have a list in mind of the next models he's planning to build?

"A list? Yes! But I know I won't live long enough to build them all!

"There are these beautiful Instant Durable cathedrals I have in mind to do. And people from all over the world don't just send me standing invitations to stay with them — they send me models. Yesterday, a friend sent me a Wells Cathedral kit, so I've added that to my list of models to do. I have another model of Wells, so I will have to build two models of Wells Cathedral!

"Another aspect of my paper models important to me has been asked to teach at three local universities about my cathedral experiences and travels. In my presentations, which have proved popular, I combine the paper models with photos of the real thing, pointing out on the models exactly what I am discussing.

"I should also mention, since I am talking to Crèchemania, that I also have made many Christmas Decorations, and scroll-saw nativity pictures and a couple of wood nativity scenes. These can also be seen on my website, Creations By Thomas.

"In fact, on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, I almost started a new thread on the Forum, 'The Wise Men have Come!' Of course, most nativity scenes have the shepherds and the Wise Men together, but we have a family tradition of not having the Wise Men at the manger, but somewhere else in the room. Every few days we move them a little closer, and on Epiphany they finally arrive at the manger."

That reminds me: I must ask Thomas about what the Nativity represents.

The Priest Associate at St. James Church in Indian Head, Maryland, thinks for a moment and says, "My Christmas Eve sermon this year started with a little boy looking at his father's picture.

"His father's in the army, and his mother hears him say, 'I wish daddy would step out of the picture.'

"On Christmas Eve, The Father stepped out of the picture."

Join Thomas, Philip, me, and paper model enthusiasts from around the world — including our good friend Celso Rosa from Brazil — on the Forum! And enjoy all of Thomas Davies Clay's cathedral photos and commentaries on Cathedral Quest.

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Fine scrollwork outlines Thomas Davies Clay's Nativity. (Photo courtesy Thomas Davies Clay.) 

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