Pillar of Catonsville community still giving to St. Mark School

One of Peggy Poisal’s famous wooden Santas, left, awaits its holiday colors. (Daniel Zawodny/Special to the Review)

CATONSVILLE – While some area businesses had closed for the evening on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Peace a Pizza in Catonsville lit up with Christmas season cheer as friends packed in for a special fundraiser.

Tables were set not with its namesake Italian dish, but more than 40 carved wooden Santas waiting for their colors.

At the center of it all, announcing instructions through a microphone, was Peggy Poisal, 72, who taught art at St. Mark School in Catonsville for 17 years. After a couple of her former students asked Poisal to bring back her famous wooden Santa project for a fun paint night, she enlisted the help of friends and family to make it happen.

Laura and Susan Huppmann, sisters who both had Poisal for art at St. Mark, reached out to her with the idea for the event. According to them, Poisal-inspired wooden Santas are a staple in the homes of St. Mark graduates.

“Our parents display them every year for Christmas, it’s tradition,” said Laura Huppmann, who graduated from St. Mark nearly 20 years ago and remains in contact with Poisal.

How did a simple, wooden Santa Claus decoration garner such a following?

Behind each Santa is 72 years of Baltimore-area history.

Poisal grew up in St. Mark Parish, and never left. She was baptized, confirmed and married her husband, Jerome, there. Save for one wedding, all four of their children received those same sacraments at St. Mark.

Her affinity and passion for art shined through all of the projects she worked on growing up, and led her to study art formally at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

In 1969, she was one only two female graphic design majors to graduate from MICA. She landed a job with WBAL working in television graphics, and stayed there until the birth of her first child.

When James, Poisal’s youngest, began kindergarten at St. Mark, the school was on the lookout for a new art teacher. His mother was a natural fit.

“It was an opportunity to do what I loved, which is art,” reflected Poisal, who also saw a chance to work for a faith community that had played such an integral role in her life.

Family and faith have bolstered Poisal through both joy and trying times, such as her bout with stage 4 uterine cancer.

“I really didn’t concentrate on having it (cancer) when I would go back into that (MRI) machine. My mantra was ‘Jesus, I trust in you’ – and I just said it over and over in my head,” Poisal said. “My faith never wavered.”

Poisal always wanted to accompany her students in their own development of that same kind of unwavering faith.

“She was the only teacher at St. Mark to teach every student,” her son, James, said. “Trying to impart that faith wisdom to all those kids was not easy; the way that was easy for her to do it was through her art.”

In addition to teaching appreciation for artists such as M.C. Escher and Van Gogh, Poisal maintained the holiday spirit in her classroom. In addition to a wooden Santa for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter and other holidays brought similar projects.

“She was God’s gift to children,” said Father Christopher Whatley, pastor of St. Mark since 1998. “She’s one of the most charitable individuals I’ve ever met. She’s loved and admired.”

Now retired, Poisal excitedly led friends and former students through her painting project one more time Nov. 29. All of the nearly $1,000 in proceeds for the ticketed event went right back to the St. Mark art room, for student supplies.

Mindful that their middle school creations were holiday gifts for proud parents, Poisal’s former students came out eager to prepare their newest Santas for display in their own homes this Christmas season.

For more on Advent in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, click here.

Daniel Zawodny

Daniel Zawodny

Daniel Zawodny is an independent journalist and filmmaker from Baltimore. He works full-time at the Esperanza Center, a ministry of Catholic Charities of Baltimore, accompanying and assisting immigrants living in the Baltimore area. A proud graduate of Loyola Blakefield, Boston College, and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Daniel is currently studying for his master's degree in journalism at American University in Washington, D.C.