Fredericksburg artist fosters spirituality with church work
Sept. 11--FREDERICKSBURG -- Dan Pfeiffer's art includes antique desk fans recast as curious flying machines, a wind chime with cow bells clanging inside a resin-hardened wedding dress and pricey tables on animal horn legs.
"It's just kind of a funky, cool, eclectic mix of contemporary art," says Samantha Little, manager of Pfeiffer's gallery and wine bar on Fredericksburg's Main Street, the former longtime site of Henke Meat Market.
The butcher's old freezer door serves these days as a functioning tabletop, and the meat hooks overhead are decorated with musical instruments.
"I got connected to nature at a really early age and I just come up with stuff," Pfeiffer, 59, said of his whimsical works.
But his catalog of creations also features a far more reverent category -- pulpits, altars and other hand-carved furniture and accessories for religious settings and sanctuaries.
"The creative talent that I have is God-given, so if I don't use it, I would kind of be like shunning God," Pfeiffer said. "That's why I like to do church furniture."
He caught the woodworking bug while attending St. Anthony Seminary, now St. Anthony Catholic High School, in San Antonio. Even while studying architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, he continued accumulating chisels, drills, saws, planers and other accoutrements of the trade.
"I started carving wood at the seminary. Then I became a cedar chopper. Then I became a deck builder. Then I started framing homes," Pfeiffer recalled.
He's been a professional artist since his 20s. His current religious project -- coaxing a small table and two chairs from chunks of sugar maple -- holds special significance for Pfeiffer and St. Mary's Catholic Church, where they're slated to be delivered this month.
His great-grandfather Jacob H. Wagner built the ornate stone church in 1906. And the church's striking Germanic style and elaborate interior of arched ceilings and stained glass windows were designed by Leo Dielmann, Pfeiffer's great-uncle.
Since moving here from San Antonio in 2011, Pfeiffer has worshiped at the church on West San Antonio Street. He made an altar and donated it to the church last year.
A Texas historical marker installed in 1995 touts the building's asymmetrical facade with a dominant corner tower and spire containing three bells. The parish's older church next door, built in 1863, remains in use for daily Masses and Eucharistic Adoration.
"My great-grandfather had a phenomenal reputation as a contractor in San Antonio," Pfeiffer said of Wagner, an emigre from Germany.
Wagner died before Pfeiffer was born, but Pfeiffer recalls visits as a youngster to the San Antonio home of Dielmann, who designed more than 100 churches and died in 1969.
Four decades after they last chiseled wood together, Pfeiffer still stands out in the memory of Father Jack Franko, who directed vocational studies at St. Anthony in the 1970s.
"Dan showed a lot of interest and potential," recalled Franko, 79. "He made an impression as a young man who had visions and goals and seemed very content within himself."
He hasn't seen Pfeiffer's more exotic gallery works -- such as the candelabra made from a large pneumatic drill, or the $3,200 walnut sofa table set atop longhorns.
But Franko is familiar with Pfeiffer's furniture from an altar, a tabernacle and a lectern that he made years ago for the Oblate Mission in San Antonio, where Franko now lives in retirement.
St. Mary's commissioned Pfeiffer to build the table and the "presider and deacon" chairs to match the elaborate altar he gave the church last year.
"It was a blessing to have Dan come along at the time that he did and offer the altar," said Jimmy Lukacs, a parishioner and volunteer at the sanctuary where Father John P. Nolan recently replaced Monsignor Enda McKenna. "He gave us a gift that truly does reflect the architecture and the work of his great-grandfather and his great-uncle."
Nolan, who transferred here in July from St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Bandera, commended Pfeiffer's use of his talents "to build up the body of Christ."
"It's beautiful and we're happy with what he's given to the church," he said of the altar, whose design includes a depiction of three doves, symbolizing the Holy Trinity. "We're grateful, but we're humble as well."
The consecration of the altar by Bishop Emeritus Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo drew three of Pfeiffer's four siblings to Fredericksburg.
"To this day, I'm still amazed he was able to produce the altar the way the old Germans did," said Fred Pfeiffer, 62, of San Antonio. "They layered the wood and then carved into that."
Another brother, Bill Pfeiffer, 58, also of San Antonio, called the altar a beautiful addition to the church.
"He took the motif of some of the interior of the church and incorporated that into its design," he said.
Creating the altar was especially challenging because of the deaths of Pfeiffer's parents -- first his mother, Barbara Klar Pfeiffer, in April 2015, followed three months later by his dad, Carl H. Pfeiffer.
For months, Dan Pfeiffer couldn't work on it, but he was inspired to finish the altar after an owl flew into his studio, stayed for days and repeatedly perched on it.
"I put my hand down right next to him, and he jumped on my arm and got up on my shoulder," said Pfeiffer with a laugh. "Eventually, he would always fly back and land on the altar pieces."
Pfeiffer even traveled with his feathered guest to the gallery, where someone spotted the bird and called authorities. A state game warden seized the owl and issued Pfeiffer a citation, which he said was dismissed by a judge.
"I finally concluded, 'He wants me to finish the altar,'" Pfeiffer recalled.
"Spirituality is something that you have to always feed. It's not something that's God-given," he said. "This is one way for me to enhance my spirituality."