A pair of gingerbread enthusiasts were the designers, creators, and builders of a 70-centimetre tall gingerbread church now decorating the front foyer of Sunwood Retirement Residence.
Sheila Diebel, who works at the retirement residence in maintenance, and her friend of more than 20 years, Claudette Schulte, decided to team up after Diebel was approached by management of the home. They found out she had experience in gingerbread art.
Diebel started out simply making cookies.
“I never really got into it at all, except when I met Claudette. I always thought, wow, that looks so fun and good,” explained Diebel.
Schulte already had a number of years experience. She used to make them with her children when they were little and the gingerbread houses gradually got bigger, better, and more elaborate.
In 2012, the pair entered Vancouver’s Hyatt Regency Gingerbread Lane competition and created a train station to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Since then the pair had been looking forward to an opportunity to do another project together.
“We’ve always wanted to do a church, so we thought it would be a great project for here,” said Schulte, who also lives across the street from the seniors home.
They started the project in late October and spent one day a week for seven weeks working on it.
On the first day they met they researched an image online, determined the dimensions, and constructed a usable template using foam board.
The following week they shaped all the little characters seen around the church grounds, using ingredients paid for by executive director Kathleen Nicholles. White gum paste was used to shape the choir characters: the grandpa and child, the snowman, toboggan, and the dog and ball. Sugar cones were covered with green icing to create the pine trees and wreaths. For the shrubs, the pair coated bran cereal with white chocolate candy melts that they coloured green.
Candy melts were also used for the cross on top of the steeple. It was poured into a mold with gold sugar sprinkled into embossed grooves to give it an antique look.
For day three, the pair handpainted the figures and created the sign that adorns the front of the church that says Merry Christmas Sunwood. They swirled black food colouring into gum paste, then imprinted it with a stone pattern using an impression mat. The wooden posts holding the sign are cinnamon sticks.
On day four, Diebel and Schulte baked the walls of the building – making sure the openings for doors and windows were accurate before the items were placed in the oven. They also shaped the bell out of gum paste.
The final baking day took place a week later for the belfry and spire pieces, and they also painted the walls and roof of the church. Additional details were added to the trees and wreaths.
On day six, the team assembled the church using icing and large stick pins. The stained-glass windows were made by melting crushed hard candy directly into the window openings. Once the walls of the building were put together, the pair attached the two large roof slabs, and the cross was set into a base of white chocolate, and placed on top of the spire using icing.
Then they landscaped the rest of the platform.
On the final day, the watch tower and belfry pieces were attached to the roof, and garlands were piped onto the window sills, the front and back of the church, and on top of the sign posts.
The final piece was about 70-cm tall from the base to the top of the cross. The roof width was about 45 centimetres.
All their knowledge has been gleaned from watching YouTube videos or by trial and error.
“And just getting creative yourself,” said Schulte.
“And you do,” added Diebel. “You start going crazy because it’s so much fun.”
They said the most fun part of the project was making all of the different characters.
They spent around 115 hours in total on the gingerbread church.
Both would love to work on another project for the retirement centre again, next year.
“We just laugh so much, especially when you’re making the little characters,” said Schulte, referring with love to figurines that ended up with lopsided mouths or eyes that were crossed.
It’s also very therapeutic, she said, explaining how it gave the friends a chance to spend time together and do something they both love.
When they delivered the church to the Sunwood, the response, they said, was overwhelming.
Residents immediately wanted to have their pictures taken with it.
“It was just so gratifying,” said Schulte.
“It’s a pleasure to feel useful and to do something that’s bringing others some joy. Especially this year,” she concluded.