'Deacon Tom' builds faith and furniture
'Deacon Tom' • Utah craftsman pours his heart and soul into his woodwork and worship.
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Oakley • Before he begins building any piece of furniture — an altar, a pulpit, a desk, a chair — Tom Tosti prays.

He asks God to help him do his best work and help him turn the wood into a thing of beauty and function. But mostly, and always, he asks for humility.

"I pray that it's for his glory, not mine," says Tosti, an ordained Catholic deacon who is carving out a reputation as a designer and craftsman of liturgical furnishings.

As his son, Dominic Tosti, puts it: "It's more than just a cabinet shop."

Indeed, the name of the family business, housed in a shop 20 yards from the family home in the Summit County town of Oakley, is the first clue it's not a typical furniture factory.

Tekton Woodworks gets its name from the Greek word for craftsman in wood, metal or stone. Tosti chose the name to honor two carpenters from Galilee: Jesus Christ and his stepfather, Joseph.

High on the back wall is a long, painted wooden sign proclaiming "Worship Times: Sunday 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m." The sign was a reject, too long for its intended place outside a church, but an apropos wall decoration for a shop specializing in religious furnishings.

Supplying LDS temples

On the first day of the new year, Tosti has a presider's chair with rich tapestry and green marble ornamentation sitting in his office, ready to deliver to a Catholic church at the University of San Diego.

A modern altar with Romanesque arches, made of quilted oak and maple with a medallion of bird's-eye maple, rests on a dolly. It will be loaded into a van and delivered to the Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Park City later on this New Year's Day.

Two drop-leaf tables await their finishes. They are bound for the LDS Church-owned City Creek Center project in downtown Salt Lake City, where they will go in condos as sales models.

That commercial work is an offshoot of other work the Tostis have been doing for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Tekton custom-designs and builds baptistry desks that the Utah-based faith puts in its temples around the world.

Dominic Tosti, who works with his father and mother, Nancy Tosti, in the family business, says the LDS Church is the company's biggest current customer.

And, seven years after turning his woodworking hobby into a full-time career, Tom Tosti is still a bit surprised by its success. Business was up 30 percent in 2010, and Tekton has a six-month backlog of orders, including work for several California churches.

A true artisan

The Rev. Steven Leiser, pastor of Shepherd of the Mountains, says having Tosti build the church's new altar, which matches an ambo (pulpit) he built two years ago, made sense for several reasons.

Tosti is a friend of many in the congregation. Nancy Tosti worked as the church's administrator for several years before quitting in 2007 to work full time at Tekton. And the fact that Tom Tosti is a Summit County craftsman fits with many members' preference for buying local.

But, most of all, Tosti built an altar that enhances worship, Leiser says. It was used for the first time last Sunday, and will be blessed at both services this Sunday.

"It's gorgeous. It's a piece of art. It changes the atmosphere of the sanctuary," Leiser says. "You are more focused on the Lord's table because you notice it. It becomes an integral part of who we are."

The Rev. Martin Diaz, pastor of St. Therese of the Child Jesus Catholic Parish in Midvale, credits Tosti's artist eye for helping him know what will work in a particular church.

"An artisan is able to take the materials and make them beautiful in a practical sense," Diaz says. "It's functional, part of everyday life, but it works and it lifts you up."

Tosti designed and built St. Therese's ambo, altar, chairs and other pieces to replace those damaged by smoke in a January 2008 fire.

He has subcontractors do the stonework, upholstery and carving for the furnishings, when necessary. Pews are the only furnishings Tosti does not make; they are generally made on production lines, not as custom pieces.

The St. Therese altar is made of wood topped by stone, Diaz says. "Because the Mass is both a sacrifice and a meal, [the altar] must connote both those images."

Beautiful furnishings, adds Diaz, remind worshippers they are in a sacred place.

"You can pray anywhere, but when you go into a building that lifts you up … you say, 'I'm here and it's not like being at home or work or the mall. It's a place where something different and special happens,' " Diaz says. "If I can touch that presence of God here, I can take some of that meditative calmness, peace and joy into the world."

'I was going to be a priest'

Seven years after his ordination, Deacon Tom, as Tosti is known at St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Park City, says the Mass centered on each altar never fails to transport him.

"The awesomeness has never left me," Tosti says. "This is where the body and blood of Christ is consecrated!"

As a deacon, he reads the gospel, preaches and assists the priest at Mass. Tosti also is in charge of St. Mary's adult-education program for those considering the Catholic faith and often presides at baptisms and marriages.

Nancy Tosti, the wedding coordinator for the parish, works with her husband in the education program and often goes with him to visit the sick or dying in their homes.

"We've been working together since we were teenagers," says Tom Tosti, who will turn 50 this year. "It works."

In fact, if not for Nancy, Tosti may have become a priest.

The two met during high school in Long Beach, Calif., where his Italian family relocated from Boston when he was in elementary school.

Tom was a junior at an all-boys Catholic high school; Nancy was a sophomore at the all-girls Catholic high school. They met at a welcome-back-to-school dance.

"I always felt I was going to be a priest," Tosti says. "Then I met her."

He majored in history at Loyola Marymount University and ended up working in sales and marketing for several decades.

The Tosti family lived in Hailey, Idaho, near Sun Valley for several years, but moved to Park City in 1994 because his partners in a sports-eyewear business were there.

The business thrived, but its growth eventually outstripped its capital and the partners decided to liquidate.

Tosti had always had a woodworking hobby and, in 2000, began working at it part time in the basement of their home in Jeremy Ranch, where the family then lived.

For a time, money was short, and all four in the family — Tom, Nancy, Dominic, now 25, and daughter Kimberly, 22 — worked at making the wood frames for advent wreaths.

"It got us through," Tom Tosti says. "We would be down to the last $50 and the phone would ring."

He built a few custom furniture pieces for St. Mary's, the St. Mary's Old Town Chapel in Park City and St. Lawrence Mission in Heber City. "All of a sudden, I had a portfolio."

From there, Tosti was hired to create furnishings for St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center at the University of Utah. That led to work at many of the new Catholic churches built in the Beehive State during the past decade.

About the same time Tosti was moving into a new career, he entered the four-year program of classes to become a Catholic deacon, joining other men from throughout the state. They were ordained seven years ago this month.

Tosti resisted the call to become a deacon for some time, figuring his salty language, occasional temper and lack of overt piety made him a poor candidate. Finally, though, the man who jokes about one day going to the Vatican to meet "Benny and the Jets" — Pope Benedict XVI and his entourage — decided that it wasn't his to decide.

"He chose me the way I am," Tosti says. "St. Paul was a pain in the neck sometimes. A lot of saints were jerks."

'Turbo Catholic'

Kimberly Tosti — who is St. Mary's youth minister and a singer and cantor at the church — says she has watched her father grow in tenderness since he became a deacon.

"He just loves the people," she says.

For his part, Tom Tosti is surprised by the way parishioners embrace him as clergy.

"People adopt you as their sacrament guy," he says, laughing.

Tosti has even traveled out of state to baptize babies for parents he married, his wife notes.

His fired-up approach to teaching the Catholic faith earned him the nickname "Turbo Catholic" from his students; he now uses the moniker for his blog (at turbocatholic.blogspot.com).

He gets a charge out of sharing what he sees as the rationality of Catholic teaching. "It's not just what I believe," he says. "It's based on reason."

The students become family. "It's a true conversion process. It's not just changing religions."

The Tostis had lots of experience with death last year. Friends and parishioners died; Nancy lost her dad; Tom lost his mother.

And Tosti has found his ministry to the sick and dying to be one of the best parts of being a deacon.

"It's a holy place," he says. "They let you into their lives in a very intimate way. It's a ministry of presence."

kmoulton@sltrib.com —

The art of faith — a yearlong series

P Throughout 2011, The Salt Lake Tribune will feature a monthly series about religious art and artisans. Today: Tom Tosti, Oakley craftsman and Catholic deacon. —

More on the Web

O To read more from and about "Deacon Tom," go to his blog at www.turbocatholic.blogspot.com.

• Oakley-based Tekton Woodworks can be found at www.tektonwoodworks.com.