April 4, 2023 // Diocese
Doormaker of Notre Dame Gained Appreciation for Catholic Faith
The University of Notre Dame has dubbed Verlin Miller, the now retired Bristol woodworker ‘The Doormaker of Notre Dame’ and created a YouTube video with that title featuring Miller.
It’s understandable that they gave him that title since Miller has made approximately 300 doors for 40 buildings at Notre Dame. In addition to Notre Dame, the Mennonite woodworker has also crafted doors for St. Mary’s College, St. Monica’s in Mishawaka, and St. Pius X in Granger.
Verlin and his wife Elaine live in a house that he built on a wooded lot. They have three grown sons living in three different states and six grandchildren.
Miller said he thinks his passion for woodworking grew out of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s when getting back to nature and craftsmanship was revived. He began woodworking around 1972-1973 and is self-taught by reading books and magazines on woodworking. In the late 1980s, Miller began working on his own. He started making furniture and cabinets but said “I took whatever jobs I could get.”
He frequented Homan Lumber, where an employee there who was a trustee at his church, St. Paul’s Methodist in Elkhart, asked Miller if he could make doors for the church. He’d already built a couple of doors for a log home so he took the job. He got connected with a commercial door distributor, which led to him building a couple of doors for St. Vincent de Paul School in Elkhart. The door distributor was also an approved hardware vendor for Notre Dame.
“He got me involved with a couple of small door replacements at Notre Dame,” Miller said.
He was then asked if he wanted to bid on the job of replacing the doors of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame. The job took him all summer but said it was fun and established his reputation. Those main doors are walnut with ash panels.
Changing Views on Prayer and Catholicism
It was while working on the doors at Notre Dame that he began to reflect on how his work could be like a prayer.
“My Christian faith has always been important to me,” he said.
He admitted to prior to doing this work on campus that when he thought of Notre Dame, he thought of football but began to realize how much spirituality there is on campus. “All the dorms have chapels; almost every building has a chapel.”
He said he asked a resident hall leader if the chapels were used and was told they were; that the students led their own worship services or just stopped in to pray.
“I began to realize these buildings are all filled with holy spaces. I began to see Notre Dame more in the spirituality evident in the buildings — in the architecture, the artwork, the grotto — people noticing have to be affected by that,” he said.
He said he began to think, “My work is participating in the holy work here. Often, we think of prayer as verbal, but that’s inadequate. If the physical work is done with reverence — for the wood, the people you work with, the people going in and out of the doors into those amazing spaces — it affects you.”
Miller also made doors for other churches including St. Pius X Church in Granger. While waiting at St. Pius for his doors to be installed, he was wandering around the church admiring the beauty.
“Being Mennonite there’s not too much artwork. I was impressed by the liveliness of the art.”
He said the priest at St. Pius told him it was Romanesque architecture, not Gothic and that it’s a teaching church in that the art all taught something. The etched glass leading into the courtyard for example showed all the prophets.
“I tended to think of the Catholic Church as somber and gothic. You go in and repent and confess, but I thought of St. Pius … if I was going here to church, I’d think of resurrection. It tied in with my understanding of my work as prayer.”
Miller said when he agreed to do the video for Notre Dame, he wanted to give credit to the others, saying he was just a small part of the process.
Other workers he met had spent most of their lives at Notre Dame and knew a lot of the history. On one of the last buildings he worked on, he was talking to a construction crew and told the foreman “It’s an honor doing this kind of work.”
The foreman said he’d had to remind his crew of that as they were grumbling because things weren’t going well. The Golden Dome could be seen from the chapel they were working in and he told his men, “See that Golden Dome? People come from all over the world to see this and we’re a part of it. This is something immensely important and we need to do our very best work.”
“I thought, ‘This guy is a kindred spirit,’” he said.
Miller said all the buildings are a massive team effort and those guys are unknown craftsmen. Aside from the 300 doors he’s made for Notre Dame, he’s probably made another 150-200; not a big number in manufacturing, but a lot for a craftsman making them one at a time.
He said woodworking is satisfying at any level and it’s lifelong learning because there’s always new things to learn. “It takes patience,” he said.
He added that he’d really like for people to be more aware of the craftsmanship in the buildings they are in.
Upon his retirement, he was sent a gift from Notre Dame’s Facility, Design, and Operations. It was a brick from Corby Hall on a piece of wood from the old bleachers with an engraving thanking him for what he had done. It stated in part, “While the bricks are important like this one from the historical Corby Hall, it is the countless doors you have built for us that all who come to campus experience each and every day. In effect, you have built the ‘front doors’ of Notre Dame.”
While retired, he said that he will happily work as a consultant to the new doormakers.
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