The Hand of St. Joseph

Have you ever noticed that when sculptor Adolfo de Nesti carved our statue of St. Joseph, back around 1911, he depicted the saint with his eyes closed?

Perhaps that has protected St. Joseph from having to witness a lot of “indignities” heaped on our statues over the years.

In pre-Vatican II times, John Deady recalls “at least twice a year they used to hang a shrine around his neck. One was for the feast of Christ the King in October, another that occurred around this time of year was a portrait of St. Francis X for the annual Novena of Grace. These were drapes and pictures of the appropriate individual.” He notes that “The Blessed Mother was not spared this indignity: at Christmas she was hidden behind Christmas trees as a backdrop for the manger and again she held up the elaborate repository that was set up for Holy Thursday….The Holy Thursday repository was particularly elaborate…”

During Lent, before Vatican II, the statues in the church were draped in purple. This wrapping of statues entailed a certain amount of manhandling by the crew of boys who helped out at the time. The late Don McDermott recalled how the boys who assisted at the Holy Saturday Liturgy, would then “stand in assigned places around the packed church and at the Gloria they would in perfect unison using the long window poles from the school classrooms, uncover all the statues as the bells rang.” This provided a dramatic ritual, but the wielding of long poles with metal hooks in a crowded space might have offered its own perils.

The statues of the Sacred Heart and St. Francis de Sales both stood proudly up in the sanctuary for many years: the Sacred Heart, to the right of the Blessed Mother; and St. Francis de Sales, to the left of the St. Joseph altar. They were both banished – the Sacred Heart, unceremoniously shuffled to the side of the church, and St. Francis de Sales to the back — with the Vatican II “de-cluttering” of the sanctuary, probably during the Venturi neon lights renovation in the late 1960s.  

In modern times, Mary and Joseph were half-concealed behind the heavy metal scaffolding that filled the sanctuary from 2006 to 2013, during roof repairs. Saint Anne and Saint Anthony are still hidden in the lonely darkness behind the metal mesh on the sides of the church. For awhile, Saint Anthony sported a construction helmet to protect him from falling debris; today, the two statues are shielded under rough wooden shelters.

The custom seems to have been revived, recently, of mummifying statues in purple, in the last two weeks of Lent “at the discretion of the local pastor.” It is suggested that “The veiling of crosses and images is a sort of ‘fasting’ from sacred depictions which represent the paschal glory of our salvation.

One might wonder how meaningful is this veiling, if the statues are not appreciated the rest of the year: how is it that nobody noticed when St. Joseph’s index finger broke off, sometime in the past ten years or so! Our statues of St. Martin de Porres and the Sacred Heart also have damaged fingers. The Sacred Heart is ancient breakage, badly repaired; St. Martin’s cracked finger is more recent.

We’re not sure when or how the damage to our St. Joseph statue occurred, but it’s part of our story now. Perhaps we should take it as a symbol and caution: he used to raise his hand in blessing, pointing to the heavens; today, his hand curves down, his thumb pointing towards himself. Did our world turn inward when we weren’t watching? We need to point to the heavens once again! In the “Year of St. Joseph,” perhaps that should be our parish mandate.

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