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(Updated Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012) St. Peter Pieta statue finds new life, new home

Friday, November 9, 2012

The restored Pieta statue was rededicated after the 11 a.m. service, Nov. 11, 2012 at St. Peter's Catholic Church, as veterans encircled the statue. [Order this photo]
Tammy Papreck, left, and Pam Whitney, right, strip the St. Peter Pieta of its external coating in May. The two worked on the statue each evening for several weeks.
(Maggie Menderski/Democrat-News) [Order this photo]
With each flake of crumbling paint, Pam Whitney and Tammy Papreck offered a new breath of life to St. Peter Catholic Church's long-forgotten Pieta.

A somber sculpture of Jesus lying lifeless in his mother's arms stood in Whitney's garage, as the two women worked to restore the antique statue to its original splendor. Frederick E. Ordway's family donated the statue to the church after he died serving in World War I. This image is common among the Catholic faith, and based on a marble sculpture Michelangelo carved in 1499.

For Whitney, the statue embodies the message that "Freedom is not Free." The Christian faith teaches that Jesus Christ sacrificed his life to free the world from sin. Just as the plaster sculpture captures the mother's remorse, Ordway's family used that image to preserve the legacy of their own child. For Whitney, neither freedom of country or freedom from sin comes without a price.

Restoring the Pieta takes delicate, painstaking work for volunteers who removed layers of old paint during the process.
(Maggie Menderski/Democrat-News)
And Whitney and Papreck sought to restore that image.

The refurbished Pieta now graces the lobby of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Marshall.
"The thing that I love so much about this statue is that it evokes an emotion," Whitney said.

In the years that followed the donation, the statue experienced its own level of agony as it faded from one life to another. Its journey started in the church's school where children walked by it between lessons. Eventually, the parish moved it to the church. It stayed there until the Pieta was coated with outdoor paint and placed outside for a brief period of time. But the thick, white paint stole from the lifelikeness of the statue. Eventually it found a home in St. Peter Church's basement. It stayed there untouched, and hardly noticed for roughly 25 years.

"It's just so funny to talk to different people that remember it, and to hear what they remember about it," Whitney said. "It obviously meant something to them."

And since pulling it from the basement, Whitney has heard several recollections of the statue's earlier days. Louise Farrell Batal latched onto the Pieta in 1963. Having moved to Marshall at the dawn of her fifth-grade year, the statue greeted her at her new school.

"I was just enchanted by the whole thing," she said as she recalled her first day at St. Peter. "It seemed so big, so enormous and meaningful."

Batal graduated from St. Peter School in 1967, and eventually left town. Today, she lives in Columbia. During a recent visit to the school, she caught herself looking for the statue. She, like Whitney, maintained a unique pull to it, and disliked the idea of it in disrepair. She even phoned an old classmate of hers in Texas, who also fondly remembered the iconic statue.

"In my mind, when I think of St. Peter's that's always the first thing I think of," Batal said.

Whitney rescued the Pieta from the basement in 2011 and hoped to restore the statue to its original splendor.

Since doing so, she's heard multiple accounts similar to Batal's. The small children that roamed St. Peter School felt the impact of the statue, even if they didn't know the WWI story behind it.

While the plastic-looking outdoor paint stifled many of the statue's features, a single photograph from the 1930s illustrates the artwork's original color. Even though the black and white print conceals the statue's true shades, the somber tone of the artwork shows throughout the photograph. Papreck and Whitney commissioned Barbara Niekamp to repaint it, but before she could paint it several of the top coats needed to come off.

"It looks like his skin was flesh," Papreck said, as she chipped away at the mother's veil. "Without the paint on him, it just looks life-like."

So the Pieta found temporary home in Whitney's garage. Each evening the two chipped away at the top layer. Using paint stripper, exacto knives, kitchen knives and sandpaper the women worked off its exterior coating. With careful motions, they stripped the statue back to the original plaster. Meanwhile, the chipping lent clues to its true color.

"We found a few places where you can see a little bit," Whitney said. "There's actually a bit of blood color on one of his wounds."

As they peeled away the face's layers, life popped back into the statue as though a thick mask had been removed. The slight motions brought chunks less than a fourth of a square inch from the statue, and anything more than that provoked a joyful celebration between the two friends. Together they found peace in this labor of love for their faith.

"It's been a very prayerful time," Papreck said. "Sometimes prayers are loud, and sometimes prayers" are tasks.

After a month of nightly chipping, the two women released the bare statue to a team of helpers from the parish. They hoisted it up on a truck bed, and wrapped it securely with a cord. After padding the joints with pillows, Papreck and Whitney delivered the statue to the artist in Jefferson City.

Catholics use statues, images and medals as tools for prayer rather than as objects for worship. The two women hope to unveil the refurbished statue for the parish and the public during Veterans Day. The St. Peter Pieta invokes an image of sadness and sacrifice. Just as the parents hoped to commemorate their son's sacrifice, Whitney and Papreck hope this statue reminds the community of the gift of freedom, whether spiritually or politically.

"This speaks volumes," Whitney said. "You don't have to say a word when you look at this."

Editor's note: Maggie Menderski is a former Marshall Democrat-News staff writer. She wrote this story before leaving for a new position at the Quincy Herald-Whig.

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