Champaign students restore, recycle statues in disrepair

Photo Caption: Students at St. Matthew’s School, Champaign, repair a statue of Mary.

By: Jennifer Willems

CHAMPAIGN — Done in the right spirit, recycling can apply to more than newspapers, glass containers and aluminum cans.

Placing old rosaries, crucifixes and statues in new hands is something Msgr. Mark Merdian, pastor of St. Matthew’s Parish, has tried to do for some time. This fall, he found partners among the students in William Geerdes’ advanced art appreciation class at St. Matthew’s School.

Working with Geerdes, 18 seventh- and eighth-graders have been restoring several small statues given to them by Msgr. Merdian. The figures of Christ as the Good Shepherd and the Sacred Heart, his mother Mary, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Francis and St. Joseph were donated by families following the death of a loved one.

“In our culture we’re trying to recycle and save things,” Msgr. Merdian told The Catholic Post. “I thought, ‘Let’s try to get these out again so they can be used for prayerful devotions by families.'”

WHEN HE approached Geerdes with his idea last spring, the art teacher thought it had great potential.

“He said he had several of these statues that were in disrepair and in need of some tender loving care,” Geerdes recalled. “He also said it would be a great way to teach the students about the Catholic faith and our heritage.”

Geerdes said there was no way to work a project of this magnitude into the curriculum at the end of the school year, however. When classes started this fall, there was a new course in advanced art appreciation and the statue restoration fit perfectly into the lesson plan.

The students meet on Mondays and Tuesdays, from 11:30 a.m. to noon. Since part of that time comes out of their lunch period and recess, commitment as well as a desire to learn were required by Geerdes for admission to the class.

“I had one class devoted to what restoration is. I showed them a PowerPoint presentation about what is involved in a professional restoration and then we talked about what a restorer does and what

THEN THE students learned how to clean the statues using Q-tips and cotton balls. It is important not to touch the artwork, he said, because the oil that is naturally produced by the skin can cause more damage.

Before the students could paint anything, they had to learn how to mix colors so they matched what was already found on the statues, according to Geerdes.

While the students reattached missing heads or fingers and fixed what they could with multipurpose cement, the teacher said they did not attempt any major repairs.

“Some of the rough areas I left alone. We didn’t want to do anything that would cause further damage. We don’t have the right tools here,” Geerdes told The Post. “We just painted over them.”

In addition to learning how to do the restoration work, the students talked about who was represented by the statues, how the saint could be recognized, and who looked to him or her as a patron saint.

GOING INTO the class, Geerdes said his goal was to help the students see that not only does art touch everything, but that this kind of work can be a real service to others.

“I’m hoping they have a better understanding that there are other ways of using their art skills than just point of creation,” he added, “another world behind the work than what they see.”

He said he also hopes they’re more aware of how religious art like this can enhance the experience of prayer and has done so for generations of believers.

Msgr. Merdian said he appreciates the faith Geerdes brought to the
project. “He’s a great teacher. The kids love him.”

He noted that Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, has been talking more and more about devotions and agreed that appreciation for many of them has waned. Projects like the one at St. Matthew’s School can help by focusing attention on the saints and the place of intercessory prayer in Catholic practice.

Like the other religious goods he has collected, Msgr. Merdian intends to find good homes for the refurbished statues.

“I’m not sure how we’ll do that yet,” he said. “Maybe they could be part of the awards we do with school families.”

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