BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
Eddie Miller remembers the conversation.
It was the same day as one of the last school Masses that his friend Tony Kraus attended before lung cancer took his life in November 2017.
“I went and picked him up – he wasn’t able to drive – so I picked him up, brought him to school,” Miller told the WKC in a May 25, 2018 interview.
Kraus had been fighting cancer ever since it was discovered in September 2017.
On that day in fall 2017 – the day of the school Mass – Miller and Kraus stopped by Miller’s classroom at Owensboro Catholic High School (OCHS), where Miller taught art and Kraus taught 11th-grade religion.
Kraus wanted to see something Miller had been working on since August 2016.
They went to the art classroom, and together looked at the project: a stained-glass crucifix, just shy of eight feet.
“I said, ‘Tony, there’s just not a place to hang it, is there?”’ Miller recalled.
“And he said, ‘Not to keep it safe, and keep it from getting broken, and in a place where people aren’t always going to keep their hands on it, touching it and stuff like that,’” said Miller.
Then, Kraus said, “What do you think about Gasper River?”
“And I said, ‘You know what, that would be the perfect place,’” said Miller.
Kraus had always been the retreat leader for the senior boys’ fall retreat at Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center outside of Bowling Green.
But in fall 2017, “Tony was too ill to go with us this time,” said Miller, who also assisted at the retreat.
During the retreat, Miller spoke with Gasper’s director, Ben Warrell.
“I asked Ben, ‘How would you feel if I made something for Gasper River?’” Miller told the WKC. “And he said, ‘Oh, absolutely.’”
Then Miller showed Warrell the pictures on his phone of the glass crucifix, “and he got really excited really quick,” Miller told the WKC. “And he said, ‘That would be awesome.’”
Miller liked to find engaging projects for the school’s art club.
In 2016, he had gone to Mass one day at his parish, Our Lady of Lourdes in Owensboro. Arriving early, as he usually did, he listened to the choir warm up and pondered what project to give his students that year.
“We’ve got beautiful stained glass windows,” he said of Lourdes. “And right above where I sit is a stained glass window of Mary. And I’m sitting there looking up at the stained glass, and then at the crucifix, and back at that.”
And then he had “that epiphany.”
Miller thought, “Wow, if I could do a crucifix in stained glass.”
When he went home, he did some sketches. Miller told the WKC it is common to see crosses made of stained glass, but crucifixes made of stained glass are another story.
If stained glass is hung on a wall, there is no light to shine through the colored pieces of glass. So Miller thought about putting a cross-shaped box – which would light up – behind the stained glass Christ.
He coordinated with fellow OCHS teacher, Bill Hagan, who does woodworking, to try out the idea. And it began to come together.
Labor of love
Art club only met once a week, and its members were involved in many other student activities. This was not ideal for a slow and meticulous project.
But Miller knew he had to finish what he had started.
Though the students still assisted when they were able, it “quickly turned into a project that I undertook,” Miller told the WKC.
Still, he didn’t mind working on the crucifix in his free time.
Having started with stained glass when he was “17 or 18” and picking it up as a hobby during his 21 years as a police officer, Miller enjoyed the project.
It was not without its pitfalls.
“Sometimes it would take 45 minutes to an hour just to do one piece,” he said. “You get it almost done, and then it snaps and breaks… or you cut yourself, and bleed all over it – which happened a number of times. And you just pack it up for the night and go home.”
From the start, Kraus believed in the project.
Kraus was Miller’s closest friend at OCHS and they usually ate lunch together. When Miller entered the Catholic Church in 2011, Kraus was his sponsor.
The important stuff
On Nov. 1, 2017 – All Saints Day – Kraus spoke to the students, faculty and staff of OCHS about his prognosis. He explained that he had stage four lung cancer, and that it had spread to his brain.
Kraus talked about his plans for treatment, but added, “What I want to talk about is the stuff that’s really important.”
“Number one: this is what we have learned from this experience,” he said. “God’s love is always present in our lives, regardless of the circumstances.”
Kraus said he, his wife and daughter had experienced support “beyond words” from the school community and beyond.
“Secondly, I have a challenge for each one of you,” he said. “On a daily basis, starting today, be a blessing to at least one person each day.”
Finally, he taught them a Latin phrase that he had on his classroom wall: “Ad majorem Dei gloriam (All for the greater glory of God).”
“So live your life for the greater glory of God each and every day,” he said.
Kraus passed away on Nov. 26, 2017.
On Feb. 14, 2019, Miller stood with Kraus’s wife, Christy, in Boone Lodge at Gasper River.
They looked up at the crucifix, which had recently been hung on a large wall in the lodge’s chapel area.
“Oh wow,” said Christy Kraus softly. “That’s amazing. You did a good job.”
That morning, an assembly of faculty, teachers and OCHS seniors – the last class that Kraus taught – were gathering for Mass in Boone Lodge with Bishop William F. Medley.
During Mass, the bishop blessed the stained glass crucifix – “in honor of Tony, who bore his own cross.”
The bishop explained that the crucifix had been given to Gasper River in memory of Kraus, “who spent his life as a teacher; who spent his life trying to lead others to Jesus Christ.”
In his May 2018 interview with the WKC, Miller had said that, “the cross doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to the school.”
Miller himself began a new chapter recently, when he accepted the position of assistant principal at Owensboro Catholic Middle School starting in fall 2018.
And now, significantly, the crucifix was being given by the school to Gasper River for retreat participants from all over the diocese and beyond.
Miller told the WKC that he never informed Kraus that the crucifix would be dedicated to him. He knew Kraus would never have desired that for himself.
But “now, he’s always here,” said Miller.
Laura Rigsby contributed to this story.
Originally printed in the April 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic