A statue that’s gazed on the Mission Gardens for 130 years gets a much-needed restoration. As layers of paint are peeled away, stories of the past emerge.
For nearly 40 years, the Statue of the Sacred Heart in the Mission Gardens has been a place of prayer and contemplation for Rick Medeiros ’78. Even living in Danville, says Medeiros, it’s rarely more than a few weeks before business brings him close enough to campus to make another stop, usually after attending noon Mass at the Mission.
But it was only recently, when he stepped in to remove a cluster of wilted flowers from the statue’s right hand, that Medeiros saw how time and weather had cracked and blistered the statue. The aura of serenity disappeared. “What’s going on here?” Medeiros wondered.
He wasn’t the only one worrying, says Charles White, director of Mission Santa Clara de Asís. Several people, including a member of the Jesuit community, had come forward to point out the undeniable: The landmark was in dire need of attention.
And so last August, the 900-pound sculpture was lifted from its marble plinth, packaged in crates, and trucked to a foundry in West Oakland. It was the first time it had been off campus in nearly 130 years.
|Painted bronze: A 1930 view. Photo courtesy SCU Archives
Understandably, the suddenly empty stand turned heads among devotees and less religious regulars alike. The sculpture of Jesus in the Mission Gardens had beckoned passersby with words of Matthew’s Gospel—“Come to Me,” “Learn of Me”—since Oct. 26, 1884.
Indeed, apart from a decision to pivot it to face south around 1930, the sculpture had hardly budged for so much as an earthquake in the years since, making it one of the campus’s oldest and most beloved features.
“It adds a really welcoming, sweet presence to the Gardens,” says Deidre Savino. She's married to Associate Professor of Engineering Ed Maurer. And last September, when she arrived for a picnic on campus, she realized something was missing. “Where’s Jesus?” she asked her friends.
Coats of many colors
It was certainly time to take action, says sculptor Don Rich, the artist charged with repairs. Standing in his Oakland studio, Rich points to a deep fracture circling the figure’s waist. “It was ready to break in half,” he says. “The paint was the only thing holding it together.”
He is only exaggerating slightly. Removing 128 years’ worth of piled-on paint and primer took three weeks, as Rich scraped away one layer at a time—sometimes with toothbrush-sized scrubs to protect the underlying metal.
All told, there were about nine coats, each testifying to the statue’s changing appearance over the years. Originally painted off-white to simulate marble, the statue acquired a technicolor look in the early part of the 20th century. A photograph dated 1917 shows the sculpture with apparent flesh tones, a beard painted deep brown, a red heart, and colorful garments.
By the 1930s, the whole statue was painted dark brown, creating a bronze appearance that lasted for decades, before it faded to the beige familiar to more recent visitors.
With so many layers removed, old details sprang to life, including the namesake heart and the crucifixion marks on the hands and feet. There was no sign of the sculptor’s identity, but his skill was clearly evident.
From the natural fall of the hair and the robes to the Roman joints seamlessly holding the piece together, the statue display’s an artisan’s touch not always found in religious works, Rich says. “This is a piece of craftsmanship.”
Devotional and beautiful
|A favorite place: With wisteria blossoming again soon, too. Photo by Charles Barry
Back in the 1880s, the statue cost just $270.50, including freight, according to the college’s handwritten ledgers, inked out in flowery pen. Even adjusted to some $6,650 in today’s dollars, the price seems like a bargain.
But Santa Clara was then just a small college of only 190 boarders and the school was nearly $90,000 in debt. Buying a statue from Paris must have represented a significant expense, but the college’s Jesuit leaders wanted to build up devotion to the Sacred Heart, according to a history of the time prepared by the Jesuits for the Superior General in Rome.
“All were of the opinion that is was devotional and beautiful,” says archivist Daniel Peterson S.J., who has been researching the statue.
The restoration and repair project will cost much more than the original work, around $30,000. In addition to sealing the cracks and fissures, and repairing blemishes, Rich is creating a hollow wax cast to make a bronze replica of the original.
It’s a similar endeavor to one decade ago, when Rich cast bronze copies of the three wooden statues that had long adorned the front of the Mission Church, before they were removed due to rot. The restored originals—including one of St. Clare that now stands in the Harrington Learning Commons, Sobrato Technology Center, and Orradre Library—were placed about campus, while the replicas took their place on the face of the Mission.
This time, it is again the replica—more resistant to the weather and about a third of the weight—that will take the stand in the Mission Gardens, says Joe Sugg, assistant vice president of University Operations. The original will be placed at a yet-to-be-determined location inside.
A prayer of thanks
It’s a heartening development, notes James Reites, S.J., MST ’71, the Jesuit who was among the earliest people to bring the statue’s deteriorating state to White’s attention more than two years ago. Reites is an associate professor of religious studies. When he first entered the Jesuits in 1960, he remembers his director showing slides of Rome, including one that particularly struck him. It was of the statue of the Sacred Heart near the Jesuit Curia—and it seemed to face the whole world with an invitation to follow.
When he arrived at Santa Clara, discovering a similar statue—and its summons Venite Ad Me, “Come to Me”—was like stumbling on a perfect welcome. “I had found my home,” Reites recalls. “Now, 37 years later, I still walk by the statue and say a prayer of thanks. Unlike some of us, it will look young and beautiful again.”