New shrines offer places of beauty at cemeteries

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, September 7, 2014

Catholic Cemeteries are more than places for Catholics to inter their loved ones who have died.

They are places of beauty, places of prayer, a physical manifestation of faith in the communion of saints, and they must encourage visitors to turn their hearts and their thoughts to eternal life. So it only makes sense for Catholic cemeteries to include art designed to do just that, said Roman Szabelski, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Catholic Cemeteries recently installed and dedicated a 30-foot granite and glass mosaic sculpture of Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing to San Juan Diego at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines, and a 12-foot replica at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Hillside.

A 32-foot sculpture dedicated to St. John Paul II also has been installed and dedicated at Maryhill Cemetery in Niles.

Catholic Cemeteries plans for the sculptures to serve as central shrines in sections of cemeteries that have flat grave markers, Szabelski explained. When looking for a shrine subject, Catholic Cemeteries looks to the cultural makeup of the people who are buying cemetery plots.

“We’ve had a significant increase in the number of Hispanic families coming to us, so we wanted to do Our Lady of Guadalupe,” he said.

The John Paul II sculpture was to be dedicated Sept. 6 at Maryhill, traditionally a Polish cemetery, honoring the Polish-born pope who was canonized earlier this year. St. Adalbert and Holy Cross cemeteries, also traditionally Polish, are slated to get statues of John Paul II as well.

“We really are ‘Catholic’ cemeteries,” Szabelski said. “People who choose us do so as part of their faith. … They want to pray for their loved one, and for the intercession of that loved one in their own lives. We have the features to help them with that prayer.”

Because cemeteries are a fairly common site for religious art, Catholic Cemeteries has several artists that it has worked with in the past. When there is a plan for a new piece of art, Szabelski said, cemetery administrators approach several artists and ask them to submit concepts as well as what the costs would be.

The Our Lady of Guadalupe sculptures were created by Gianfranco Tassara of Inspired Artisans, a Milwaukee company. The John Paul II sculpture was created by Conrad Pickel Studios in Vero Beach, Fla.

Tassara said he used granite to make the sculpture look almost like a mountain, and the glass mosaic to bring in color that would last “almost forever” despite being out in the weather. The size is balanced with the size of the area the sculpture occupies.

In the Guadalupe sculptures, the figure of Mary as Our Lady of Tepeyac is set into a niche at the top. Small mosaic roses cascade down to a figure of Juan Diego, who stands at the base.

“I wanted to show a sense of connection between Our Lady and San Juan Diego, who is after all a very humble person,” Tassara said. “It tells the story of the apparition. It is very pictorial.”

The message that Tassara hopes people take from the sculpture is one of hope, because if Mary appeared to and cared for the concerns of a Mexican native in the 16th century, then all of us can have hope that she cares for us too.

“The story by itself is one of hope,” Tassara said.