New Orleans nun creates beautiful Carnival ornaments

Sister Olivia Wassmer calls her work a blessing.

The Poor Clare nun who's originally from Indiana came to New Orleans more than 45 years ago.

The city's charm, but even more so Carnival's mystique, quickly captured her heart.

Her favorite parade became the Krewe of Thoth. It passed every year in front of the Saint Clare Monastery.

"It really thrilled me the way it's a whole family process. It really got me," said Wassmer.

A trip to what's now the Riverwalk Outlet Mall downtown gave her the inspiration to create beautiful tiny pieces of New Orleans art that thousands around the world cherish.

"Some lady had ornaments, but they were ceramics. I thought, I could do that with this," said Wassmer.

She went back to the Uptown monastery with an idea to create small wooden intricate ornaments.

Sister Olivia has created about 48 different ornament designs over the years.

She keeps 38 different ones going all of the time.

Creating the ornaments is a time-consuming process that mixes old and new techniques.

"First, I print them on the computer and print several on the sheet. Then, they get pasted on the board. I use one eight inch balsa wood. Then, I paint the whole strip," said Wassmer.

She added, "Then I give them one coat of varnish, this way to help seal that and then I cut them on a scroll saw."

Each ornament takes about an hour to make. She then sells them at the monastery gift shop for 7 dollars a piece.

"They sold pretty well at our Christmas sale, the ones that I had, and after about the third year somebody says what's the new one? I said uh-oh. What's the new one? That means they are collecting them," joked Wassmer.

Year after year Sister Olivia unveiled a new ornament. She usually focused on a cherished site in the city. But in 1996, she created her first Mardi Gras ornament. The first one was a replica of the Thoth's king float.  She made it in honor of the parade she came to love.

Then came ornaments for the Krewes of Hermes, Comus, Rex, Proteus and even the iconic red shoe float from the Krewe of Muses.

"These are important, they are lovely and your legacy will live on after we're all gone. These things are not going to fade away," Carnival Historian Arthur Hardy told Wassmer.

"I think the highest compliment I ever got on my thing was after Katrina a lady sent me a letter. She sent me a letter saying that she took my whole set of ornaments when she evacuated. You only take the most important things when you evacuate," said Wassmer.

Ornaments are not the only pieces of art Wassmer creates. She also works on tiny miniature paintings of New Orleans.

She's an organist, ran a print shop where she created a book called "Sketches of New Orleans". She wrote, drew, printed and bound the book all by herself.

But it is her passion for her ornaments that she holds near and dear to her heart.

Wassmer says she will keep making the ornaments as long as she can.

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