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Restoring the King of Glory: One artist reflects on a ‘resurrection’

Restoring the King of Glory: One artist reflects on a ‘resurrection’
PASCALLE BIPPERT "” Artist Mary Jean (Ruhnke) Laechelin takes her time, adding lifelike details to the figure of Christ. The statue will be replaced in the St. Ann Catholic Cemetery Sunday, Dec. 17.

St. Ann Catholic Church parishioners and members of the La Vernia community will soon receive an unusual gift -- just in time for Christmas.

For years, Adkins artist Mary Jean (Ruhnke) Laechelin drove by the St. Ann Catholic Cemetery on F.M. 1346 near La Vernia, on her way to go grocery shopping. She noticed the faded, weathered statue of Jesus -- the corpus -- on the crucifix on the walkway in front of the chapel there and wondered why it was so dilapidated, and why the figure had not been restored.

“Then one day as I was driving home with all my groceries, I felt a calling inside of me to turn my truck around and go back to the cemetery,” Mary Jean recalled.

She’d seen two people in the cemetery doing some beautification, so pulled her truck over and was going to turn around.

“No, no, I’ve got to get home with my groceries,” she thought, and kept going.

That voice came to her again, much stronger this time. Mary Jean relented, turned her pickup around, and drove back to the cemetery. She looked up at the statue of Jesus, and knew, as an artist, she had to do something to bring it back to its former glory.

She asked the parishioners whom she should speak with about restoring the statue. One said she was a member of the church’s beautification committee and offered to give Mary Jean’s name and information to Rev. Stanislaw Fiuk, the pastor.

Three days later, she got a phone call.

It was Gerry Kvapil from St. Ann’s, giving the artist permission for the restoration work.

“She asked how much it was going to cost and I told her it was a calling, my gift, to give back to the community,” Mary Jean recalled. “I’m just honored that I have an opportunity to work on a life-sized statue of our Savior and to be able to know that people will love to look at the beautiful statue, rather than think, ‘Wow, that statue looks terrible.’”

She and her stepfather, Alan Guinta, drove to the cemetery to collect the statue. Assisted by parishioners Oscar de la Torre and his helpers, they carefully removed the figure of Jesus from the cross, loaded it into the bed of her pickup, and drove to her stepfather’s home in Adkins. Mary Jean was afraid people were going to freak out when they saw the statue in the bed of the truck.

“It was an interesting experience driving through town with the Jesus statue in my open truck bed,” the artist said. “He was strapped securely to my truck’s bed and propped up slightly, with his arms open. I caught a few glances at the red light on Highway 87 and 1346. I’m sure it took folks a moment to realize it was a statue and not a man strapped to the bed of my truck! I’ll forever remember the sight of the statue looking at me in my rearview mirror.”

The statue is made of an acrylic resin material; some areas of the body were deteriorated. Also, there were holes that needed to be repaired, as the statue is hollow, and Mary Jean didn’t want water to get inside. The figure was very faded, and had wasp nests, spider webs, and bird droppings on its head and shoulders.

Mary Jean and her stepfather sanded the entire statue and then fixed the damaged places with Bondo filler. Once the filler dried and was smoothed, Mary Jean began painting.

She applied a base coat of yellow, peach, brown, red, and white acrylic paint to the entire statue, then added whiplash marks to the back -- indicating the torture Jesus endured prior to His crucifixion. She’s giving careful attention to adding more detail to the figure’s skin, face, feet, toenails, and hair. More realism will follow, as she adds the wound in the statue’s side -- representing where the soldiers pierced Jesus with a lance. Mary Jean will seal the entire statue with a coat of marine epoxy sealant.

While she’s undertaking the painstaking restoration of the corpus, church members will repaint the crucifix, making it ready for the statue’s return.

That will be in time for Christmas, she said. Replacing the corpus in the cemetery is set for Sunday, Dec. 17, at 2 p.m.

This restoration has been a revelatory experience for the local artist.

“He’s using me,” Mary Jean said. “I’m just a vessel. We should all listen to the small voice we hear. If we see something that needs to be done, don’t just think that someone else can do it.

“I think, ‘Why not me? Why not you?’”

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