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Mending fractured saints requires care and a touch of sensitivity

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Leslie Harding and Georgina Ferrandi work on statues at the Saints Alive Studio. (CNS/ courtesy of David McQueen)

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Leslie Harding and Georgina Ferrandi touch up a statue of Jesus. (CNS/courtesy of David McQueen)

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(CNS/ courtesy of Saints Alive St)

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Saint Paulinus and Santo, the dog, watch over the Saints Alive studio. (CNS/courtesy of Saints Alive Stu)

Two years ago, in Queens, N.Y., a 25-year-old man shot the head off a marble statue of St. Anne with a pistol-grip shotgun. With a large machete, he hacked off the hand of an adjacent statue of the child Mary. Then he turned the gun on two policemen and, finally, on himself.

In the days after the gruesome event, the members of St. Anne Roman Catholic Church called on Georgina Ferrandi, 39, to fix the 107-year-old icons. For the job, Ferrandi made rubber molds and recast a hand and head for the white life-size statues. Parishioners stopped by and blessed themselves with the water she used to repair the marble as it ran down the statue’s side.

Ferrandi is one of a small group of artists who specialize in repairing religious statuary. For Ferrandi and others in the trade, Easter is traditionally the busiest time of year.

Repairing symbols of faith can be a complicated business, demanding not just the ability to work with a variety of materials but sensitivity to congregations that have strong attachments to their icons.

In early April, Michelle Bowman-DuMey worked on getting a dozen religious statues ready for Easter in her St. Louis studio. Bowman-DuMey is meticulous in her conservation methods.

Before painting she carefully peels back layers of old paint to determine the original color of the statue. Restorers "often repaint, not realizing the significance of the colors in the original artwork," she said, resulting in a coarsening of the face or altering the color of clothing.

Lydia Shalanko, who repairs religious statues in Edwardsville, Ill., said the fingers, small limbs and feet of religious statues break most often, but anything can and does break under the pressure of age, weather or accident. And in repairing the items, a little improvisation can be key: Shalanko recently mended the shoulder of a 90-year-old plaster Jesus using glue normally found in auto-repair shops.

Like Bowman-DuMey, Ferrandi has had to fix previous well-intentioned repairs, like the Band-Aid that kept one statue’s finger attached to its hand or the garish eye shadow applied to another. She got her start in Baltimore, where her parents made their living refurbishing churches. While they worked on the structural aspects of buildings, Ferrandi helped with the smaller tasks, like painting toenails on statues of Jesus.

Ferrandi obtained a master's degree in sculpture at Ohio State University and moved to New York the day before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In aftermath of the attacks, she decided to begin a business, Saints Alive, to restore and repair religious statues. “I wanted to do something positive in the city, focusing on rebuilding,” she said.

On a recent day, marble and plaster limbs were splayed across a white work table in her Brooklyn studio. Eleven statues stood in the two rooms in various stages of repair.

To reinforce a 6-foot-tall cross, Ferrandi layered swatches of wet fiberglass across it. A church requested that she repaint a statue, which was painted gold, in a light skin tone and depict open wounds on the hands and feet dripping with blood. “He is supposed to be a suffering Jesus,” Ferrandi said.

The colors associated with each saint are largely preordained by Catholic tradition, but congregations sometimes have their own variations.

One statue depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Ferrandi's studio has a traditional white robe but with an egg yolk-yellow hue. She will repaint the robe in cream and keep the familiar orange in the robe's shadows. “It can be tricky because they often have a devotion to what they’ve been seeing, so sometimes I don’t stray too far,” Ferrandi said.

One statue propped in Ferrandi’s windowsill, a 4-foot-tall Mary, has names scrawled in pencil and pen across its gold base. Haitian worshipers often write names on the statue as a way to ask the saint for a blessing, she said. On other statues, Ferrandi has found tiny rolled-up pieces of paper in between the saint’s toes, each with a name written on it. While she will paint over the gold base, she will return the paper prayers after repainting.

A few streets from Ferrandi’s studio is Our Lady of Carmel Church. The church's priest, the Rev. Joseph Fonti, says Ferrandi's work is invaluable. Dozens of the church's statues were brought to America by the church’s Italian immigrant congregation. "They brought their devotion and love with these statues," he said. The parishioners keep communion with their past, and with their faith, through the saints, he said.

Ferrandi has done work on six of these statues that sit in a special shrine room, where she has spent days cataloging them for future work.

“The molds of yesteryear that made such beautiful and welcoming saints are gone," he said. "We are trying to preserve these pieces of art.”