The sculptor came with his latest works, the product of months of labor. The mason arrived with cement drills, architectural glue, and an eye for smoothness and form.
By the time Geoff Krist, a graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Peter Pliva, a contractor, finished their work Friday at Blessed Sacrament Church in North Baltimore, they’d completed a quest undertaken on behalf of dozens of parish supporters and restored a symbol of faith in a declining neighborhood.
They replaced the hands of a statue of the Virgin Mary that has stood watch at the church since 1921. Vandals knocked off the original hands years ago.
Mary Claire Miller, a former parishioner who helped spearhead the 10-month replacement effort, was there Friday, and she grew emotional as she eyed the finished work.
“Our mission has been accomplished, and Mary is at peace,” said Miller, 76, who grew up with her siblings directly across Old York Road from Blessed Sacrament. “That’s what we’ve been working toward all this time.”
The saga of Mary’s hands began one day in August when Miller, a retired flight attendant who now lives in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood of North Baltimore, found herself driving through the Pen Lucy neighborhood where she grew up.
She knew that attendance at Blessed Sacrament had declined sharply over the years, and that a part of the city that had served as backdrop to an almost idyllic childhood for her and her friends had long since fallen into disrepair and seen an increase in crime.
But she was not prepared to see the statue of Mary — a landmark of her childhood whose arms had always seemed extended in a gesture of welcome — in such poor condition. Every finger was gone, she realized, including both thumbs, and so much other material had been torn away that the Blessed Mother, as Catholics know her, seemed to be reaching out without any hands at all.
“Seeing that just came as a shock,” she told The Baltimore Sun in an interview last fall. “Without those hands, she seemed helpless ... Something had to be done.”
Miller called her younger sister, Linda Sullivan, in Colorado. The pair hatched a scheme: They’d start a GoFundMe page to kick start a restoration campaign. The results astonished the sisters; it took just three days to meet their original goal of $4,200.
Better still, they seemed to raise spirits. More than 70 people, it turned out, kicked in with funds. All were at least in their late 50s, and many reached out from states beyond Maryland.
Many weighed in with comments, waxing nostalgic about the nuns, priests and friends who shaped their lives in the parish, including at the elementary school, which closed in 1972. Some specifically mentioned the statue, which many remembered looking down on a range of important occasions, including May celebrations that had the children dressed up and taking part in processions through the neighborhood.
“I went to Blessed Sacrament from ‘68-’70, and I was baptized and had my first Holy Communion at Blessed Sacrament Church,” wrote one donor who contributed $50. “All these decades later, I still remember the statue of Mary; she seemed to reach out with such gentleness.”
But the fundraising sisters ran into complications. The contractors they reached out to wanted as much as $15,000 for the job.
On the verge of giving up late last fall, Sullivan woke up in the middle of the night with an inspiration: why not check at MICA to see if a student would be interested in the work?
Jann Rosen-Queralt of MICA’s Rinehart School of Sculpture responded by summoning Krist, a Connecticut native who had just spent a year studying carving marble in Florence, Italy. He started work in January.
The challenge, Krist said, was an unusual blend of materials — Mary was crafted of cement, but the hands were of steel — and the fact that whoever damaged the statue removed the knuckles across the top of each hand in addition to every finger. The breaks were so hard-edged that both sculptor and mason are convinced the hands could only have been removed in an act of vandalism.
Faced with the challenge of filling those gaps, Krist drew on photos of religious art he took in Italy, a visit to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, and even his own hands to create clay models, then a plaster cast of each hand. He then poured cement into those casts.
Pliva, a Czech native who has done work at such sites as the Washington National Cathedral and the Maryland State House, was impressed that Krist’s work featured details the original did not, including finely crafted fingernails and more realistic folds of skin.
He later asked Krist to insert pins into all four new pieces — two hand portions with fingers and two thumbs — so he could attach them to the original.
As the pair got to work Friday, Pliva commenced with what Krist calls his “mason magic,” chiseling the statue’s broken surfaces smooth, drilling holes to accommodate the pins, filling the openings with masonry adhesive and glue and, after about 90 minutes, sliding Krist’s creations into place.
The sculptor did a silent fist pump as the pieces meshed as snugly as a completed jigsaw puzzle.
“I’m super pleased to see it all together,” Krist said. “This has been fun because it involved making something whole again.”
Others agreed. As the sun streamed out from behind a cloud, Jackie Callender, a neighbor, stopped in the midst of a walk down Old York Road to take a closer look. She squinted as though trying to believe what she was seeing.
“I pass this statue every day, and I just love that she’s got hands now,” she said. “Now she’s complete. She’s welcoming everyone with open arms.”
Miller and Sullivan raised more than $6,100 overall. Current members of the small congregation pitched in nearly $2,000, and Krist accepted only $600 for the job.
The sisters asked the Rev. Joe Muth, pastor of the parish, to keep the portion of the funds current parishioners raised for other repairs at the church.
That left the organizers of the statue restoration effort with more than $3,000, which they’ve given to MICA to help fund a sculpture scholarship.
To Muth, who will be retiring after 11 years at Blessed Sacrament next month, the mission could not have been more timely. The repaired Mary will be part of the church’s 110th anniversary celebration June 6, and in a larger sense, her reemergence represents a powerful message, even in a church whose numbers have shrunk and a neighborhood sometimes plagued by violent crime.
“We Catholics say that Mary’s son, Jesus, was murdered by the crucifix, and many mothers in that community have lost their children as well,” he says. “Mary is going through a similar kind of heartache, and that gives comfort to others in their grief. This repair is a great symbol to show that you can be made whole again, no matter how you’ve been broken.”