- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) - John Bennett was recently lying in a hospital bed with religious items on a tray in his lap.

The 76-year-old Burlington man ran his hand over two of three items, a book of Catholic prayer and a Rosary. As his hand came to the third, a little 3-inch-tall wooden cross, his fingers closed around its rough edges.

The cross is one of more than 1,000 Bennett has made during the past several years. His “old, rugged crosses” are little gifts he gives friends and strangers facing tragedy and sorrow.

From scrap wood he carves gifts to “give away happiness” to anyone needing it.

“The kind of stories I hear,” Bennett said, “they’re beautiful. It makes somebody happy. And it makes me happier.”

Bennett had a stroke in 2008 and never fully recovered the feeling in his hands.

One of his granddaughters, Anna, gave him a cross similar to the ones he now makes.

“He held it all the time,” said his daughter, Beth Allen. “And eventually, he goes ‘I’m going to see if I can run my jigsaw.’ “

After experimenting with a few saws, he worked out a way to still be able to carve the crosses. His process takes a few days, one step at a time. Eventually, he started making batches of about 50 at a time.

First, he made them for his family. He began giving them to parishioners at his church, St. John’s Catholic Church in Burlington. And soon, he carried them with him everywhere.

“He goes up to complete strangers,” Allen said.

Bennett has trouble remembering them all. There have been homeless people, struggling families and sick people. His favorite is when people give theirs away and return for more.

“My husband gave one to a co-worker when his mother passed,” Allen said.

“This man calls the cross ‘mother.’ So one day, the dry cleaner called and says ‘Hey, you left your mother in your pants again.’ “

Bruce Brockway, who attends church with Bennett, has a particularly powerful story. Bennett gave him and his wife, Tiffini, crosses when their son, Garrett, died in a tragic accident.

“I carried that cross in my pocket for months,” Brockway said. “Anytime I thought about it, I could touch the cross and remember that Christ is with me. You couldn’t buy it from me.”

But one day, Brockway gave it away. He returned to Bennett to apologize for giving away the gift and to ask for another. Bennett was elated.

Soon after, he was picking up two dozen crosses to hand out.

“It’s John’s ministry, all these people,” Brockway said.

He keeps a little notebook full of names and numbers. He writes down who gets one and how many they take.

At the hospital, Bennett has added a few names from handing them out to the nurses. One of his other daughters, Tara Schroeder, said the nurses know him as “the cross man.”

Bennett has essential thrombocythaemia, or ET blood cancer, The Hawk Eye (http://bit.ly/2pHGsGt ) reported. He had surgery earlier this month. He isn’t feeling great, but he maintains a good spirit for his guests. And he always has a cross around to hold.

He has seven children, 27 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two more great-grandchildren on the way. And he’s made certain each has a cross.

“I feel so blessed,” Bennett said, as he closed his eyes and tightened his fingers around his little wooden creation.

___

Information from: The Hawk Eye, http://www.thehawkeye.com

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