Koleys Inc.: Family firm’s craftsmanship graces churches worldwide

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Posted: Wednesday, December 25, 2013 12:00 am

In the run-up to one of the busiest and most celebrated times of the year for the Christian faithful, it has been all hands on deck at Koleys Inc. in midtown Omaha.

Here, this 95-year-old, family-owned business takes Christmas seriously, but you’ll find no images of Santa Claus, reindeer or snowflakes; no twinkling lights nor mistletoe.

Koleys specializes in the manufacture of religious metalware found in churches across the globe. Just before Christmas, about 100 shipments a day leave the Koleys dock in boxes containing holy vessels like censers, chalices and monstrances.

“We really are putting the Christ in Christmas, and we’ve been busy making churches look very nice for it,” said Tom Koley, president of Koleys.

A glance at the shipping orders attached to metalware of all shapes and sizes in the shipping area demonstrates the 18-employee company’s reach: Receipts show destinations across the continent, from Louisiana to Canada. Koleys has shipped product as far away as Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong.

But during the last full week before Christmas, president Tom Koley was focused on Omaha and keeping ahead of demand here.

Since Koleys also refinishes items with plating in gold, silver, nickel and brass, downtime is hard to find. Awaiting repair in the company’s “triage” department was a pair of tabernacles, the locked boxes where the Eucharist is placed when Mass is not being held.

One is marred from a crowbar used to break into it. “People think the money of the church goes in the tabernacle,” Koley said.

Even though these items are often expensive — an ornate tabernacle can easily cost more than $10,000 — they represent something intangible. “It’s the Eucharist, the body of Jesus Christ, that goes in there.”

The Catholic Church has high standards for sacred vessels used in worship, according to the Rev. James O’Kane of the Grand Island, Neb., Diocese. O’Kane said Koleys recently refinished chalices for the diocese to be used in Christmas services. Chalices are cups used to hold the wine consecrated during Mass.

Monsignor James Gilg of St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha referred to these and other items as “artistic treasures” and compared them to family heirlooms.

“As parishioners see these (items) over and over again, they get really attached to them,” he said. “It’s not like you couldn’t pray or worship without them, but bringing them into the ceremony enriches what we’re doing.”

While the cost for a single chalice routinely exceeds $1,000, there is nothing mundane about them, Koley said.

“We live in a throw-away society, but a lot of the stuff we get is handed down through generations,” he said.

Items designed, built and plated in the shop are meant to last far beyond the current generation, he added, and it’s becoming harder to find skilled artisans and silversmiths capable of caring for them.

Electroplating has changed little since it was pioneered in the early 1800s, and a steady hand and attention to detail have been constants.

After Koleys staff evaluate an item, it is thoroughly cleaned and then stripped of lacquer and any other metal finish. The object is then suspended in basins containing various solutions to modify surface chemistry.

When plating gold, for instance, electricity is passed through a solution of gold salt and other compounds. The item being plated is attached to the negative end of a circuit, and when a current is passed through, a chemical reaction occurs and gold ions attach to the surface of the item.

The item then moves across 13,000 square feet of the Koleys facility to other departments for additional cleaning, engraving, polishing and reassembly. Chemistry aside, plating is very labor-intensive — but Koleys craftsmen have experience on their side.

“(Our employees) are just really, really good at what they do,” said Tom Koley, who represents the fourth generation of the Koley family business.

His 20-year-old daughter, Keri, is the fifth generation. A junior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she’s studying business administration, she works at Koleys when time allows.

On a day when her grandfather, Edward Koley, was in the office to reflect on his time leading the company, Keri Koley was hesitant to speculate on her future as a potential successor to the family business.

“It was pretty high on my list as an option once I finished school, but it’s kind of scary to think of everything that goes into running this, and all the stress,” she said.

Edward Koley, now 93 years old, said the company started out working with mostly commercial clients after his grandfather and father founded Koley and Son in 1919. Adding chrome plating to drill bits for industrial clients was good business, and later, the company also plated molds for Omaha-based Airlite Plastics.

Refinishing church goods was something of a sideline.

“My grandfather (Peter Koley) was always active in the church and it made sense for him to help,” Edward Koley said.

It didn’t take long for Edward Koley’s father, Joseph, to see opportunity in working with religious organizations, however. Joseph Koley was named as inventor on the company’s first and only patent, issued in 1941 for a single-chain censer — a metal container in which incense is burned — that was designed to avoid tangled chains. More common censers had four chains.

The company still sells the censer as one of hundreds of products in its catalog of church goods. General manager Terry Goehring estimated the company ships 20,000 to 25,000 manufactured units a year out of Omaha.

Repair and refinishing services are not limited to religious customers, however.

Koleys silversmiths have worked on the trophy for a Daytona 500 race winner as well as championship cups for the Omaha Lancers. They repaired a sterling silver tray that was folded in half after thieves pitched it from a getaway vehicle and it was run over by a police officer in pursuit.

Professional hockey hall-of-famer Bobby Hull paid Edward Koley in bottles of Crown Royal whiskey to apply gold plating to hockey pucks during his career with the Chicago Blackhawks.

“There’s no blueprint on this stuff,” Tom Koley said.

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