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Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica adds statues of popes John Paul II, John XXIII

Stephen Huba
| Thursday, April 5, 2018, 9:51 p.m.
The new marble statue of St. John XXIII, inside the Saint Vincent College Basilica, in Unity Twp., on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The new marble statue of St. John XXIII, inside the Saint Vincent College Basilica, in Unity Twp., on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
The new marble statue of St. John XXIII, inside the Saint Vincent College Basilica, in Unity Twp., on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The new marble statue of St. John XXIII, inside the Saint Vincent College Basilica, in Unity Twp., on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
The new marble statue of St. John Paul II, inside the Saint Vincent College Basilica, in Unity Twp., on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The new marble statue of St. John Paul II, inside the Saint Vincent College Basilica, in Unity Twp., on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
The new marble statue of St. John Paul II, inside the Saint Vincent College Basilica, in Unity Twp., on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
The new marble statue of St. John Paul II, inside the Saint Vincent College Basilica, in Unity Twp., on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.

Their reigns couldn't have been more different, but they share a place among the most influential popes in the modern history of the Catholic Church.

And now they share a space in the Saint Vincent Archabbey Basilica.

On Sunday, new marble statues of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII will be dedicated during the 11:30 a.m. Mass at the basilica in Unity. Guest celebrant will be Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., who will be joined by Greensburg Bishop Edward C. Malesic and Archabbot Douglas R. Nowicki.

The two 20th-century saints will take their place among four Benedictine saints dating back to the sixth century — St. Benedict, St. Scholastica, St. Placid and St. Maurus.

The two popes were canonized by Pope Francis on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2014, which is why the dedication service is being held on this year's Divine Mercy Sunday.

"By any measure, both of these popes made a significant contribution not only to the church but also to the world," said Nowicki, archabbot of Saint Vincent's.

The project, funded by donors George and Eileen Dorman of Pittsburgh, fills a gap that has been felt since the basilica was renovated in 1996, he said.

"I think (the Dormans) recognized the importance of John XXIII and John Paul II and the particular legacy they left to the church, so they wanted to pay tribute to that," he said.

When the six side altars were removed in 1996, the four Benedictine saints were retained and placed on pedestals. That left two empty places with no saints, said the Rev. Vincent de Paul Crosby, art and environment consultant for the archabbey.

"For 22 years, we had two empty bays that kind of cried out for statues. … It was always in the back of our minds — should we do something about that?" said Crosby, who oversaw the 1996 renovations.

The 2014 canonization of the two popes made them the "obvious choice" for the additional statues, he said.

The archabbey then turned to Norbert Koehn, a sculptor from South Euclid, Ohio, to do the work. Koehn, 64, previously had done sacred commissions for Saint Vincent in the 1980s and '90s.

Koehn, who moved to Cleveland from his native Germany in 1977, patterned the new sculptures after the Benedictine ones done by Austrian sculptor Ferdinand Seeboeck in the 1930s, using the same material – Carrara marble.

But there were also differences. Unlike the sixth-century saints, everyone knows what John XXIII and John Paul II looked like. As a result, their depictions in marble look more realistic and less "idealized" than the saints of old, Koehn said.

"It was not just a challenge to work in the marble, then to work in the same style of the 80-year-old statues. I also had to please the congregation, to make kind of a portrait of these saints in marble," he said. "I do a lot of figurative work, but I never did saints who were living in our time."

Selecting the proper poses and facial expressions was painstaking work, in which Koehn consulted with Crosby and Nowicki.

"These two (popes) were very well known, so you kind of have to depict them the way they were," Koehn said.

For John XXIII, the decisions were easier because he was pope for only four and a half years (1958-1963), and most people picture him in one way.

"We suggested that with John XXIII, we could try to capture the warmth of his personality and the fact that everyone saw him as their grandfather, so to speak," Crosby said in a YouTube video about the project.

He is shown with a slight smile, his right hand in a gesture of blessing, and holding a gilt book containing all the major documents of Vatican II, the council he convened at the start of his papacy.

"With regard to John Paul II, we saw him as a very dynamic and active personality, a very well-traveled pope, one that was very energetic, and so we thought that we should try to express in his statue a sense of movement and dynamism," Crosby said.

Because John Paul II was pope for so long (1978-2005), the project leaders decided to depict him as he looked when he was younger.

His right hand is outstretched, and he is carrying his crozier, which also is gilded. His pose captures a slight wind blowing his cassock.

Koehn did most of the work in his Cleveland studio, starting with clay models, but saved the final carving for inside the basilica. He hopes to attend Sunday's service.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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