From Santa Claus to the state fair, Charles Mudge supports his faith

By Kathy Schmugge

COLUMBIA — It was the bible verse, Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel,” that was the inspiration for the winning sculpture at the 2002 South Carolina State Fair, titled “Global Conflict.”

Created by amateur sculptor, Charles Mudge, the intricate carving depicts a snake crawling up a walking stick while resting on top of the world, and a foot on top of that, crushing the snake.

As one of the 1,400 contestants in the fair, Mudge, a parishioner of St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken, did not expect the first-place ribbon. He entered the piece as a way to evangelize. He noticed whenever he would walk with it, people would stop and ask questions about this unusual work of art, first attracted to its beauty then attracted to the message of hope it contains.

The walking staff was actually a replica of one he made two years ago. The original one was given to Cardinal Avery Dulles, a well-known theologian and author who came to Columbia for an ecumenical event. Mudge had decided to give the cane to Dulles because the cardinal’s faith journey had a great influence on his own conversion. He did not know that the cardinal had been using a cane prior to their meeting and saw it as a confirmation that it was meant to be his.

Forty-six years ago, Mudge converted to Catholicism, due in part to a very convincing convert whom he would later marry and with whom he’d go on to raise six children. Prior to the wedding, he received a solid month of Catholic instruction from a retired Jesuit priest who died shortly after Mudge entered the church. He later found out the priest was sent to Florida because he was in the final stages of cancer.

“He must have been in a great deal of pain, but he never once complained,” Mudge recalled. “I remember the priest told me about a young man who was disowned by his father, gave up great wealth and position, to become a Jesuit priest. That man was Avery Dulles, and I never forgot his great sacrifice for the faith,” said Mudge.

Almost immediately after his conversion, he made his first religious sculpture, a large mahogany crucifix that one of his children asked to have in her home.

Once he retired from Bell South after working there for more than 40 years, Mudge dabbled in art and traveled the world as a tour guide. His wife who always had an interest in medicine, went back to school to become a nurse, and he went back to become an emergency medical technician.

Finally his white beard caught up with him, and he was “discovered” by an owner of the Woodbridge Center in New Jersey to act as one of their Santas. He has been flying to New Jersey for the past 14 years but decided to take a break this year from the travel.

However, he has not retired the Santa suit. It gets plenty of visibility in the commercials and advertisements that he does from time to time. One example is that he is currently on the cover of ABC Distributors dressed as Santa Claus.

Last year, Mudge began work on what would become the winning sculpture. He made a few improvements but it has a striking resemblance to the first one he created.

Another one of his recent inspiration is a unique Franciscan necklace. It is the Franciscan cross carved from wood with two arms crossed over it, one hand is Christ’s and the other is St. Francis of Assisi. Both hands reveal nail wounds. As soon as he finishes one, he gives it away to make another.

He attributes his creative eye to God whom he said has inspired his work. He is constantly seeking ways to express his love for his faith. One way he shows this is by leading a rosary group that prays for vocations to the priesthood.

“When I first converted 46 years ago, I told the priest I was fine with all the teachings but that I would never pray to a woman. Look at me now,” he said referring to the recitation of the rosary.

Besides a first-place ribbon, Mudge was given prize money that he has split between two charitable organizations, Birthright and Family Honor.

He believes these organizations project the same message of hope in a future where good prevails over evil.