Repairing religious statues can be opportunity to pray, says artist

ROCKFORD, Ill. – Her first job was a decapitation.

The statue of Mary, mother of God, had fallen hard enough to crack off her head, Gloria Visel said as she recalled just how she got started many years ago in her work of repairing religious statues.

Parishioners at old St. Mary Church in Rockford had put the statue back together the best they could, using ribbons to try to hide the scar. But it just didn’t look right.

Visel, of Winnebago, had studied art and painting before she began raising her family. With most of her children in school at that point, she volunteered her artistic services. Augustinian Father Edward Kersten, St. Mary pastor, accepted her offer immediately.

His confidence in her abilities gave her the needed boost to attempt the repairs, she said in an interview with The Observer, newspaper of the Rockford Diocese.

Her then-2-year-old youngest son enjoyed accompanying her, especially when one of the priests would invite them to the rectory so Edward could help himself to a dresser drawer that was always filled with candy.

That first statue turned out well, and Visel continued volunteering to restore the many other statues in the church. She said some of the church candles were emitting styrene, a substance that was coating the statues and making them dull and gray.

The Infant of Prague was her second patient. He and most of the others at St. Mary Church just needed a good cleaning and a few paint touch-ups, she said.

Word of her work on the statues began to spread. “People started bringing me little statues,” she said, “and then some began bringing outdoor statues, which need outdoor paints and finishes.”

Visel appreciated that “people brought things that meant a lot to them.” She discovered she “could kind of pray, in a way, with my paintbrush. It was hard work (at times), but different from housework. It was meditative.”

The needs of each statue have ranged from a complete overhaul to touch-ups, she said, and some of the repair efforts have been “trial and error.” Her tools include toothbrushes, Q-tips and dental instruments for hard-to-reach places.

“Some statues are really old and very fragile, and others come to me in (sturdy) condition,” she noted. Some statues were made of plaster; others were concrete, stone or marble. Most of her work has been with religious statues for parishes and individuals, along with an occasional bust or outdoor rooster statue.

She noted that the images of Mary have changed through the decades, with the older statues filled with many delicate details. At the request of one customer, Visel contacted an antique dealer about a statue, which was traced back to Germany and was likely part of a Stations of the Cross scene.

Visel now charges a “small amount” for her work, and considers many of her hours of work as “part of my time and talent,” she said.

“I like images,” she said. “They help me focus (my prayer), and statues can trigger a lot of thoughts and meditation.”

Her next big project is at St. Anthony of Padua Church. She and a parish staff member will be working on the backdrop at the parish’s shrine. Although Visel sees her endeavors as a “solitary work,” she thinks having a co-worker for the project will be fun.

As it has over these past 20-some years, her labor of love for the saints and for people continues to evolve.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.