When I arrived at St. Mary in July of 1999, someone gifted me with a postcard-size photo of the interior of St. Mary Church taken by Fr. Elmendorf in 1935. We have used this valuable photo as the resource for all the restoration undertaken during these fifteen years. There was just one final touch that eluded me for all these years: The Stations of the Cross.
In the 1935 photograph, one can see a silhouette of the Stations hanging in the church. They are larger than the Stations presently in the church and [with a magnifying glass] are of a gothic design. Old timers have told me that they had wooden frames with spires and were paintings. The same old timers told me those Stations were sold at either a bazaar or at ba-zaars, presumably to purchase the present Stations, which date to the 1950’s. Over the years I have looked for Stations that would fit that description of the original Stations. Often I would find the perfect set but they would be either too large or too small. Or they would be all plaster of Paris. After a 10 year search, I finally located a set that were the perfect size, wooden gothic framed, but with plaster of Paris scenes. It was time to compromise. Contact-ing the seller, I was told that they were Flemish, from Belgium, dating from the late 1700’s-early 1800’s. They were in good condition, with minor flaws. When I first found them…on Ebay!…he was asking $16,500. A hefty sum. After almost a year’s checking Ebay, I noticed that he had reduced the price to $14,000. This was just about the time I was going to the National Pastoral Musician Conference in Washington, DC. The dealer was located in Maryland. I made arrangements to go and personally see the Stations before committing to purchasing them at such a price. I rented a car and drove to Maryland. I brought with me someone who could advise me as to the artistic merit of the Stations and their appropriateness for our church of St. Mary.
When we entered the warehouse where the 14 Stations were laid out in a row against the wall, I was literally overcome with a sense of awe of what I was seeing. They were not only of the perfect size, gothic to fit the period of our Church of St. Mary, but of an artistic quality and merit that was undoubted of museum quality. I was grateful that the dealer was determined not to break up the set of Stations, as often happens.
As I was looking over the set, the dealer informed me that 3 churches were looking at purchasing the Stations. One was trying to raise the funds. Another was having to go to committee for a decision. And Us. After looking over the complete set and consulting my advisor, I told him we would take the set. He looked a little startled. I told him that the Altar Society had set aside for years an even greater sum for Stations and that I was the Committee…ha. I told him to pack ‘em up. We needed them before Lent of 2014.
It is now Lent 2014. We are blessed to have not only found a set of Stations of the Cross that closely resembles the original of the Church of 1917/35, but have found a home in a church and not a museum or have been broken up as a set. I sometimes imagine the church where they hung for many years. I hope and somehow know that the parishioners of that church would be grateful and proud that their Stations have found a home that not only appreciates their antiquity but have restored for us what was lost.
Notice the details of each Station. The Roman numerals are of an older dating than that of the modern numbering. For instance, #14 in the new style is XIV. In the older style it is XIIII. The figures in each Station are highly detailed and rendered in such an active state that one can enter into the action that is being depicted. The figure of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is even more amazing. Notice how her expres-sions are so emotional and how she often looks out at the Assembly, as only a mother would asking ‘Why?’. The Stations are hung in the old fashioned way, leaning out, because the Stations are meant to be prayed individually going from Station to Station looking up at the Station. Levered out, one can see the detail of the Station. I would suggest that you walk the Stations and get the full impact of what the artist of these special Stations was trying to convey.
The Altar Society of St. Mary has been very patient and supportive in this search for the set of Stations that would not only be part of the restoration of St. Mary but be a profound source for the spiritual growth of our Community, not only during Lent. but throughout the liturgical year for generations to come. Many thanks also to Ms. Donell Hill, our semi-resident artist, for the cleaning/restoration/gold-leafing of the Stations and having them ready for their debut on Ash Wednesday Lent 2014. It was a Herculean task that she knows is impossible when I say it ‘has to be done’ yesterday. She just smiles and says ‘Yes, Fr. Ed.’.
As historically and artistically important as are the new addition of the Stations of St. Mary, I have to say that St. Joseph’s Stations are as historically and artistically significant. They, too, are not original to the church. St. Joseph’s Stations were lost during the 1968 renovation. The present Stations of St. Joseph are of almost the same date as St. Mary…1750’s…French…simple wooden frames…no numerals…of the perfect size…painted on copper. No restoration was done on the Stations. You’ll notice that some are potted, others in perfect condition. They are also hung in the old style.
I am profoundly humbled that our churches are houses of worship that we can all be not only proud, but also thankful that we do our best to enable all who enter to encounter Christ, our Lord and Savior. I know, because I have been told so often, that we are an oasis that many find a strengthening of faith and a hidden treasure.
I hope that during the Lenten Season, these ‘new’ but ‘old’ Stations [which generations in a distant land have found inspiring], will inspire us to enter into the suffering and dying of Christ who is the ‘center of our life, whom we will always praise, whom we will always serve, whom we well always keep in our sight.’