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Jeweled Cross leaves behind rich history in North Attleboro

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When the Jeweled Cross company moved into their final location at 117 South Washington St. in North Attleboro, James Brennan was but 4 years old — too young to roam the building’s expanse.

But in the years to come, he would start to know the building as a second home — finding familiarity in every nook and cranny — as he took over the family business, a jeweled crucifix manufacturing line that became well-known in the Attleboro area.

Jeweled Cross, it seemed, was synonymous with North Attleboro, parked in the old building that marked the beginning of a row of jewelry homes in town. And, it remained that way up until the company switched hands in 2014 and moved to Woonsocket, leaving the building in the dust.

Construction on the Jeweled Cross property began last month after the building was sold under a 40B permit to GreatBridge properties. The developer has plans to convert the land into an affordable housing complex with 65 apartments.

That conversion marks a big change for the building at 117 South Washington St., traditionally a factory and office space that stretches back to the 1800s — especially after the factory addition behind the building’s main entrance was demolished last month, opening up the six-acre plot for potentially the first time in 200 years.

But, at the heart of the property will remain the historic entryway, complete with the awning that Brennan, and those before him, parked his car under upon arriving to work for nearly 45 years.

“They’re very conscious of its heritage,” Brennan said of the developers. “They’re keeping the front building. I think they realize its antique value.”

But no one knows its value better than Brennan himself.

The building became home to Jeweled Cross nearly 20 years after the company had already begun.

But South Washington Street is the only Jeweled Cross home Brennan’s ever known.

Jeweled Cross began almost out of an accident when Brennan’s grandfather — also named James Brennan — crafted a jeweled crucifix for a longtime friend and nun living in New York City as a token of appreciation for her kindness to his family.

The senior Brennan was an electroplater by trade in Providence and used his skills to piece together a mahogany cross embellished by more than 1,200 hand-set stones that highlighted the jewelry trade of his time.

Word quickly spread about the unique design and soon Brennan faced requests from everyone from friends to funeral directors who asked him to duplicate the art for their own use. In 1923, he obliged, and Jeweled Cross was born.

In its first 20 years the company bounced around, starting at Brennan’s kitchen table and moving to four workspaces around the Attleboro area.

But in 1940, two years after the senior Brennan had died, the family moved the company to South Washington Street, taking up shop in the old T.I. Smith Co. building as a tenant. There the company thrived under Raymond Brennan, the younger James Brennan’s father, and his brother Russell Brennan.

Before long, James Brennan also found his stake in the company as its third generation owner.

Brennan, now 80, joined the company in 1961, just one year after Jeweled Cross bought the South Washington Street building outright from its previous owners. Though, by his account, he was involved much earlier, spending time at the factory in his teen and college years.

“I’ve been there my whole life,” he said. “You see a crack in the pavement, I can tell you when that got here.”

In 1969, he assumed full ownership of Jeweled Cross and maintained the company until 2006 before following his predecessors’ footsteps and leaving the business to his son and son-in-law.

“As it happened, I was the only boy in the family,” Brennan said. “My father had four children: Three girls and one boy. My uncle Russell has four children, but all were girls.

“And in those days, the man of the family had to take over the family business.”

But it wasn’t just that family commitment that kept Brennan along all those years.

It was the thought of making something for a family’s special moment.

The crucifixes were oftentimes used during a Catholic wake, Brennan explains, hanging above the casket and later becoming a treasured token of remembrance for the deceased’s family.

The first funeral director to eye his grandfather’s design was entranced by the way candlesticks would reflect off of the jeweled stones, creating an ethereal glow around the crucifix.

And, in later years, the company expanded to include mementos for various religious events, including communions and confirmations.

“We had customers in England, Ireland, Puerto Rico, Canada,” Brennan said. “It started from one simple personal gift, but we’ve made millions of them.”

After 90 years the family sold the business, but Brennan still practices his craft, designing crucifixes for a company in Arizona. He’s retrieved the very first crucifix his grandfather made from the convent where it hung in the 1920s.

And, he’s stayed in touch with the building’s new owners, who promised him a room in the front office — the original building — if he ever wants one.

“There’s so many memories here,” he said during a trip back to the site last week. “But it certainly has changed.”

Kayla Canne can be reached at 508-236-0336, kcanne@thesunchronicle.com or on Twitter at @SCNAttleboro.

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