COLUMBIA – It boggles the mind, as Cully Dale says. Five-inch-tall felt mice selling for $25 or more. Dozens of people lining up to buy hundreds of those mice within an hour. Countless hours spent handcrafting those mice over the course of a year.
And yet, all of that is true.
Known as church mice, the mice have been sold for nearly 40 years at Calvary Episcopal Church’s annual St. Nicholas Advent Bazaar, held Saturday. They account for one-third to 40 percent of the roughly $10,000 the bazaar raises annually for the church’s outreach efforts in Columbia, according to Calvary treasurer Ray Dockweiler.
"What I like is that the proceeds go to outreach in the community," said Ele Dockweiler, who has been making mice for 25 years and teaches the craft to others. "There's a lot of need this year."
The church mice have become a mainstay of the bazaar as both a reliable fundraiser and a sentimental favorite. A “Mouse of the Year” award, featuring a custom-made mouse mounted on a plaque, is presented each year to a dedicated and longstanding volunteer; this year’s recipient was bazaar treasurer Mary Wise. The Rev. Paula Robinson of Calvary read a prayer from the perspective of a mouse on Noah’s ark at a brief prayer service before the bazaar opened.
About 30 people were lined up outside the church 15 minutes prior to the bazaar’s 8 a.m. opening. They then stood in another line to buy the mice. Bazaar shopper Ann Austin called the mice “the only thing we’d ever stand out in the cold for.”
The mice have their devotees among not only their buyers but also their makers.
“You get quite emotionally bonded with your mice,” joked Kathy Digges, one of the self-proclaimed “mousers,” who Ele Dockweiler estimated number around 10 to 12.
“It’s a happy combination of people willing to pay $25 for a little felt mouse and people willing to make them all year long," Dale said.
Yes, $25. Basic character mice sell for $25, while more complex mice mounted on special bases or crafted as pairs might fetch up to $50. Dale tells of a mouse-sized children’s Christmas pageant she created one year that sold for $175.
And, yes, all year long. Mouse-making classes are taught at Calvary primarily during the fall and spring, Ele Dockweiler said, but mousers work throughout the year.
Digges said the mousers don’t check throughout the year with each other to see if they're making the mice. "It’s just a given that people will show up on bazaar morning with every mouse imaginable,” she said.
The mice stand around 3 to 5 inches tall and wear intricate costumes. This year’s characters, which numbered around 300, included "Nutcracker" characters, Celtic dancers, mermaids, St. George and the dragon he slew according to Episcopal and Anglican lore, and even Michelle Obama.
“The ladies just inspire you with their creativity,” said Ele Dockweiler. “We’re on the third generation of mouse-making ladies. These younger ladies are creative, and we have a lot of fun.”
According to church archives, the mice arrived at Calvary around 1972, when Anne Griggs brought the original pattern of a choir mouse from her previous church in Virginia. Today, Ele Dockweiler and Dale, who inherited the patterns in 1988 and 1998, respectively, teach others to make the mice.
The felt mice and their costumes are hand-sewn based on a set of patterns. Mousers estimated that a mouse can often take up to five hours.
“Generally, if you’re making just one from scratch, it takes about an evening,” Dale said.
By all accounts, the little mice are a big deal for Calvary.
“It’s the funniest thing because we’ve made $5,000 on these little felt mice,” Dale said. That number is an estimate of the mice’s highest sales in a single year.
The idea of small felt mice raising thousands of dollars for a church can seem improbable, their creators admit.
“When somebody started talking to me about the mice, I kept saying, ‘Little felt mice? $25 for little felt mice?’” Dale said. “But yes.”
Apparently, the community agrees: Within the first hour of the bazaar, all but eight of the 300 mice had been sold.