It all started with two sisters, Lois Knowles and Beulah McFarland, back in the early 1970s.
A member of their church – Calvary Episcopal Church – had moved to Columbia from Virginia. With her, she brought a cute little felt mouse, dressed to be in a church choir.
Knowles and McFarland decided to try making mice of their own. “Choir mice,” they called them. Each stood at just three or four inches tall, wore a red cassock with a lacy top and held a tiny prayer book.
A few years later, they began branching out into “character mice” – lady mice in frilly dresses, mice with children and mice for different occasions.
Now, about 40 years later, the mice continue to be a signature mark of Calvary Episcopal Church.
They’re also among the top sellers at the church’s annual St. Nicholas Bazaar, which was held last weekend. Mouse sales alone totaled about $3,800.
The original mice sold for $8 each. Now, some sell for $25, but most sell for $35, with prices ranging upward, depending on the detail of the mouse. This year’s mouse nativity set sold for $200.
All of them were sold within the first hour of the bazaar on Saturday. According to Ele Dockweiler, one of the “mousers,” that’s typical – if it takes an hour and a half, then business is slow.
Dockweiler is one of about 10 women who are currently responsible for most of the mice. She first learned her skills at the feet of Knowles and McFarland.
“It’s very precise,” she said.
Many of the women, including Dockweiler, enjoyed mouse-making as an activity they could take up for a few minutes at night, after their children were tucked into bed.
Most of the mice follow the same pattern, though there have been a few variations. There’s the “Hunka Munca” mouse, based on a character from the Beatrix Potter books, along with a mouse with its nose in the air. But most of them are the traditional mouse.
Still, they’ve changed a little through the years. Most of the originals were choir mice, with character mice intermixed; now, most of the mice are characters, with just an occasional choir mouse.
There are knitting mice, mother mice, and acolyte mice. There are mice dressed like Truman the Tiger, and mice wearing black and gold to sport their Mizzou spirit. There are cowboys and firemen, and several Santa Clauses – old-fashioned Santas, new Santas and a Santa by the sea shore. There was a mouse dressed as St. Francis of Assisi, and a mouse dressed as Madame Butterfly.
“The imagination of these women is fantastic,” Dockweiler said.
The mice have also seen more subtle alterations through the years. Longtime church member Liz Schmidt is not a mouser, but she pointed out that if you look closely, you’ll see that their noses are much shorter now than they used to be. With their former long noses, they used to look a bit more like rats.
Most of the mice just come out at Christmas, for the bazaar, but some of the originals – those made by Knowles and McFarland – have a year-round presence at the church. If you visit the church office, they’re one of the first things you’ll notice, as they stand displayed on a shelf on the wall.
Although all the freshly made mice at this year’s bazaar sold quickly, there were a few found at the church afterward that were somehow missed during set-up. One of the mouse-makers came to pick them up, and they’ll have a chance at being sold next year.