Neillsville church statues should be home for Christmas
by Cheyenne Thomas
They were pieces of art. Objects sculpted with care almost 100 years ago by skilled artisans, using techniques rarely seen today. Made to direct the eyes and minds of the people toward heaven, these objects had a history, survived fires and the toll of many years of existence. In an instant, gone. Smashed to pieces.
The statues that once stood within St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Neillsville have been absent for several months now, ever since an act of vandalism occurring on March 1 left a majority of the church’s large statuary and other religious items in broken chunks of plaster, slivers of wood and twisted metal. Along with the religious items, the parishioners’ sense of security, too, was shattered, leaving them to face the long months of healing with uncertainty of what was to come.
Slowly, the cloud of uncertainty has begun to pass at the parish. A Mass of Reparation was held immediately after the tragedy by Diocese of La Crosse Bishop William Callahan, the first step of healing. Canvases of art were purchased to fill in the otherwise empty spots where the statues once stood. Now, the statues that were destroyed all those months ago are coming back.
Parishioners were informed during a meeting on Oct. 22 about the church’s progress on attempts to repair the extensively damaged statues. Jeremiah Bogdonovich, one of the parishioners at St. Mary’s, has been heading up the project to restore the items that were destroyed and spoke to the people in attendance about the overwhelming success that has been had so far in the restoration project.
It has taken quite a bit of time for repairs to begin on the approximately $110,000 worth of items damaged by the vandalism. After months of cataloging the losses and working through the insurance process, Bogdonovich said the church only ended up having to pay a $1,000 deductible for the insurance to cover the rest of the repair costs — a real benefit to the parishioners.
“We’re very blessed,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about costs being passed over to the parishioners unless we go above and beyond what we had before.”
Once the financial part was over, Bogdonovich said the next step was to find businesses that could accomplish the seemingly impossible task of putting Humpty Dumpty — or in this case, the statues — back together again. Given the wide array of what was destroyed and the materials used to make them, he said several businesses were sought out with expertise in different areas: statuary, metal, wood and stone.
List and bids in hand, Bogdonovich went to the church’s Pastoral Council for the final decision. After looking at samples of work done by the businesses, it was decided that most of the statues would be taken to Conrad Schmidt Studios in New Berlin, the tabernacle dome and handbells were taken to a facility in Chicago, and Stone Innovations of Rhinelander would be handling the repairs to the baptismal font.
“On Sept. 24, they (Conrad Schmidt Studios) loaded every statue piece by piece,” he said. “The tabernacle and bells that were smashed and are in a rough state went down to Chicago … Fortunately, the tabernacle is made so the top comes off to put the monstrance on top, it’s secure so we don’t have to worry about someone breaking into it (while the dome is gone). Stone Innovations picked up the baptistry. The top piece of granite was broken away from the bottom and the top is in six pieces. We hope to seal the top together or they will make a new piece.”
With a month already spent working on the repairs, Bogdonovich said he has been surprised at how fast progress has been made, showing slides of photographs taken of the statues during the reconstruction process. Though most of the statues are still in many pieces, he said repairs have already begun to erase how awful the damage was.
“The statues, right now, they’re in pieces. I hope the pictures aren’t as graphic as it was (when they were first destroyed),” he said.
Going through the list of statues that were destroyed — a few from the Stations of the Cross set, the Crucifix from the front of the church and the large statues of St. Joseph, Our Lady of Grace, Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Conception — Bogdonovich shared the damage that had been done to each one and what has been done at this point to repair them.
Two of the statues that have had the most progress in their reconstruction are the St. Joseph and Our Lady of Grace statues. The back side of the St. Joseph statue had been almost completely shattered and both statues had received considerable damage to their heads during the vandalism, but Bogdonovich said they are nearly put back together and have even gotten their first coats of paint.
“(Our Lady of Grace) Her head was pretty much broken off. She didn’t have a face when she left here. She looks fantastic (now). She’s still missing one of her glass eyes, it’s in there somewhere, neither were destroyed. I’m amazed by how the statues are turning out,” he said. “Joseph, his back was pretty much shattered, but they have started putting him back together and have started painting him. There were tears in my eyes when I saw the nearly completed St. Joseph.”
The last few Stations of the Cross and the large Crucifi x are also on their way to being fixed. The Crucifix probably sustained the most damage during the vandalism, since both the statue body and the wooden cross it was mounted on were smashed, but Bogdonovich said Conrad Schmidt Studio will be able to repair the body while a local artisan will put the cross back together.
“It was bad, really bad. Conrad Schmidt said, ‘Yeah, no problem, we have enough large pieces here.’” he said. “The cross itself, (the local artisan) will do. He will put the pieces back together, revarnish it, it will look like new.”
Though the vandalism itself was tragic for the parish, Bogdonovich said there was a silver lining. For years, he said the statue of the Immaculate Conception at the church was surrounded in mystery. It was known that the statue of St. Joseph had survived the fire of 1923 that destroyed the church, but because this statue of Mary still smelled of smoke before it was destroyed, it was often wondered if it too, had been rescued from the fire.
From one of the only photos taken of the inside of the church in 1923, Bogdonovich said they often compared and contrasted the image with the statue. One faced left, one faced right. One had a moon under her feet, the other didn’t. Short of breaking the statue, they weren’t able to account for the differences on the otherwise same statue. Now, the mystery is solved.
“The Immaculate Conception, there were doubts on whether or not she was original to the church before the fire. The body looked the same, but the heads were switched. We now believe that this was the original from the church. We suspect the head was broken off when she was rescued. She’s made the same way as St. Joseph but the head was made with a completely different technique,” he said pointing at the two photos. “This is a really grainy picture, but you can see that her arms are the same and can see the hem of her cloak matches. That’s definitely the same statue.”
With this new revelation, Bogdonovich said Conrad Schmidt Studios has agreed to try recreating the statue to the way it looked before the fire. Since the process used to reconstruct a statue’s appearance requires good photographs to give the artists an exact appearance to model, it will take longer than the other statues to finish.
“They will do everything they can to make her look like the same way she did before,” he said. “It will take more time, but they will create her head to look the right way before 1924 and bring back the moon.”
One of the items destroyed didn’t make it. When asked about the two pillar holy water fonts that used to be near the doors of the church, Bogdonovich said they will need to be replaced since one of the pair was smashed beyond repair. Part of the reason for it being unrepairable, he said, is because the font was made out of a material known as terrazzo and no one today creates objects like that out of that kind of material.
“I thought it was red granite until we looked at the pieces. Stone Innovations looked at that and said, ‘That’s terrazzo, it’s poured terrazzo.’ We reached out to the premiere terrazzo company in the state which happened to be in Holmen and they told us ‘Good luck finding someone to recast that,’” he said. “I brought this to the council and the common response was ‘Well good, they were ugly anyway.’” The fonts will be replaced by a pair of angel fonts Bogdonovich found at a warehouse on the east coast that saves old items taken from closed churches and sells them to parishes that want them. All the statues that were destroyed, along with the new fonts, are expected to be brought to the parish by Christmas.
“We’re looking at Christmas getting them back. I was expecting a full year and they told me ‘What do you think we are, amateurs?’” he said. “We don’t foresee this going into the new year.”
Security was another thing addressed at the meeting. Before the whole incident began, the church had always been unlocked to allow anyone who wanted to visit the freedom to come and pray as they wished. That much, Bogdonovich said, won’t change.
“This all sped on a sense of security,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of the parish, everyone agrees that locking the church isn’t right. Look at the basement windows, they’re all at ground level. If someone wants to get in they can get in, the narthex is all glass, they can break in if they really want to.”
The church instead had 13 security cameras installed all across the grounds, both indoors and outdoors, will have pressure sensors placed underneath its statues and secure its Stations of the Cross to the wall with hangars. If anything happens, Bogdonovich said, the security system in place will contact law enforcement, hopefully preventing another tragedy from occurring.
“The police are really excited about it. They tell us there are things that are going on in our church parking lot at night out of sight from the road and we don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “We opted to include pressure sensors underneath the statues so if a statue is moved it will trip the alarm in the church, it will sound in the church, it will also ring at TruLock and call up cameras and call law enforcement.”
Jeremiah Bogdonovich explains at a recent meeting the repair process for St. Mary’s Catholic Church statues that were destroyed by vandalism in March. The statues should be repaired and back in their places in the Neillsville church by Christmas.
CHEYENNE THOMAS/STAFF PHOTO