Florida UCC member gives thanks, gives back to his congregation with Christmas ornaments
Written by Emily Schappacher November 18, 2013
Michael Nitzsche. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Tribune.
Out of more than 65,000 Christmas ornaments from a collection he started when he was just a toddler, Michael Nitzsche kept only three of them that he just couldn't bear to part with. The rest were sold to the public with all proceeds – nearly $29,000 – benefiting Nitzsche's church, First Congregational United Church of Christ in Sarasota, Fla.
While parting with his beloved collection of Christmas décor from throughout the world was difficult, the ornament sale Nov. 14-16 was the only way Nitzsche was sure he would be able to thank his congregation for the unwavering emotional, physical and financial support members provided him during his recent battle with cancer.
"It was just so incredible," Nitzsche said of the sale. "We had an entire church working together at one time on one project. The harmony that went on and the people who were touched when they came into the fellowship hall – a lot of miracles happened this weekend."
Nitzsche was diagnosed with Stage III cancer last year. It began in his prostate, has since traveled to his bones, and has now entered Stage IV. Uninsured at the time of his diagnoses, Nitzsche was unable to afford the $1,000 worth of medication he needed each month to survive, so members of First Congregational UCC started crunching the numbers. For three months, 20 members each donated $50 to cover the costs of Nitzsche's medication. Then his doctor, whose mother attends First Congregational UCC, got the pharmaceutical company to donate one year's worth of medication to Nitzsche.
"Every time something would happen to me, more arms reached out," Nitzsche said. "To this day, I still don't know who all the people are who donated money for my shots."
Nitzsche also doesn't know all of the people who volunteered to help with the sale of his ornaments. To handle the volume, much of which came from the Creations Christmas store he used to own in Venice, Fla., he estimated he would need 50 volunteers each day working 2.5-hour shifts. But nearly 350 people volunteered to help during the three-day sale, some who don't even attend his church.
The Rev. Gloria Van Houten, associate pastor of First Congregational UCC, came to offer an hour out of her busy schedule but ended up volunteering for six. She recalls first meeting Nitzsche when he worked as the church's florist. Although he was not yet a member of First Congregational UCC, he would contact the church to ask about the theme of the week's sermon, which he would use as inspiration for his floral creations. He joined the church shortly after Van Houten became associate pastor in 2008, and the congregation still looks forward to his weekly "works of art."
"Michael has given to the congregation in every way possible, first through the flowers and then in so many other ways. It was financial gifts that he did not have," Van Houten said. "He has given us so much of his life and talents that the whole congregation came around to help him.
"He has Stage IV cancer, so he knows he will not live that much longer," she continued. "But we care for him, he cares for us, and that's just the way it is."
Nitzsche's initial goal was to raise $10,000 for his church, so the event greatly exceeded his expectations, and with money still coming in from as far away as Indiana, he thinks it will be another week until they know the final total. While he is unsure how many Christmases he has left to celebrate, Nitzsche says the holiday has always been a happy time for him and his family. He has always loved the "glitter and glamor" of the ornaments and the act of decorating the home and making things look beautiful. But for Nitzsche, the fact that he was able to use his collection to repay the congregation that means so much to him is beautiful on a whole other level.
"I've been very active with my church," Nitzsche said. "I've always offered a lot of time and talent, the only part I was worried about was the treasure. Then it dawned on me as I was looking at my Christmas collection that I could give this to the church. It came about by thinking outside of the box, and it's a pretty powerful thing."