“Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost and must be found,” prayed Debra Chronister, local artist and Victoria College art professor. She was sanding around one of three matching rhomboid-shaped gems in the front of the crown on an Infant Jesus of Prague sculpture when one popped off. The half-inch-long gem lay somewhere in the leaves, dog hair, paint flakes and dust on her back porch.
“I couldn’t see it, and no way was I going to find a replacement for that shape and size of gem, so I stopped and took a break,” Chronister said.
She recited the prayer to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, took a deep breath, and within a few minutes, found the gem. She set it carefully aside to replace in the crown later.
Chronister is restoring five religious statues for the Infant Jesus of Prague Catholic Church in McFaddin that were damaged along with the church by Hurricane Harvey.
“As much as I love big rainstorms, and my house was taken in 1998, I don’t begrudge the river of rain – I love the forces of nature,” she said. “And I also appreciate the sculptures as aspects of our humanity. It’s something I have studied.”
The two larger plaster figures, Jesus with the Sacred Heart and Virgin Mary Queen of Heaven, stand almost 4 feet tall. The Infant Jesus of Prague, the namesake of the church, is mid-sized, she said. And the smaller figures are a saint holding the Infant Jesus and another Virgin Mary.
Chronister’s background in art history allowed her to recognize aspects of the sculptures when she saw them for the first time in McFaddin. She noticed the larger crowned Virgin Mary stood on what was left of the crescent moon, the traditional iconography for the Virgin Mary of Heaven referring to a particular Revelations verse in the Bible. The other Virgin Mary is standing on a snake on a pedestal, also traditional iconography.
“Those are things I knew and to see them in figures – that traditional European imagery – here in Texas is pretty exciting,” she said.
Chronister found stamps pressed into the plaster from companies in Chicago and Milwaukee, but the exact age of the sculptures is unknown. She guessed that four of the sculptures were made in the middle of the last century. She believes the Infant Jesus of Prague is the oldest of the sculptures.
“Infant Jesus of Prague was the real surprise,” she said. “It looked like the least spectacular one at first, but it was the most spectacular when it was finished – as it should be as the namesake of the church.”
The Infant Jesus of Prague had a mangled blessing hand and the cross on the orb, which symbolizes the world, was missing. Chronister spent more than 100 hours restoring the sculpture.
“Entropy is a constant force in the world, so it’s nice to reverse that,” she said.
She had to wash the plaster with a pH-neutral soap to remove dirt from the hurricane and subsequent storage. The paint on the Infant Jesus was not original and had not adhered to the surface properly, so it was flaking and peeling off, and the original paint underneath was harder than the plaster.
“I was hoping just to sand and paint the sculpture, but ended up having to strip the whole thing,” she said.
She wiped the plaster with a damp cloth to remove damaged paint and then sanded the surface repeatedly until it was smooth. Sanding a curved 3-D surface with intricate detail is not like sanding a tabletop, she said.
She discovered several holes in the figure that were covered with paint after she had already washed the sculpture, so she drilled a hole in the bottom to make sure any moisture could escape. She filled in scratched and small chipped areas with marble paste and replaced the cross and hand with polymer clay. She cleaned and replaced missing gems and applied multiple layers of paint. The areas that were not gold were sealed with a matte protective medium, and cork footing was added to the bottom to prevent the sculpture from scratching the newly refurbished altars.
“Once the thick coat was removed, I realized it was the oldest sculpture of them all based on the structure and construction, and probably the most precious,” she said.
Chronister started working on the sculptures in January with help from Erica Estrada, who took her art classes at Victoria College. Restoration of the five sculptures required some or all of these processes to different extents because their damages were different. The saint holding the Infant Jesus had a relatively stable coat of paint, but the foot of Jesus was broken off and a large chunk was missing from the saint’s robe. Only the small Virgin Mary had the original paint, so Chronister filled in chips in the back of the sculpture and the restoration only took nine hours.
She is in the process of restoring the last sculpture, Jesus with the Sacred Heart.
She replaced the back of the statue’s skull using a wire device she created for support. And she recreated details on the Sacred Heart and sculpted new fingers and hands for the figure. By the time this article published, she had painted four coats of red paint on the robe, and she intended to add a few more layers. She still needed to add hair-like texture to the head and paint the rest of the sculpture but planned to finish soon.
“It’s incredibly gratifying to see them finished, to see the look on the people’s faces when I deliver them,” she said.
The restoration of the Infant Jesus of Prague Catholic Church, established in 1916, also is almost complete. Chip Dence, owner of East End Building, commended craftsman Dewayne Smalley, Gary Bennett and Matt Cavalier for almost a year of full-time work that started with a new concrete foundation. They straightened the twisted and leaning structure about 12 inches left to right and about 5 inches back to front using five chains and come-alongs. They shifted the structure a bit each day over the course of two months until it was upright.
They repaired interior walls, flooring, the balcony, stairs leading to the balcony, pews and altars. They replicated the entryway that was blown down, repainted the interior and exterior of the church, and installed a new cross and new roof.
Gary Dunnam, Marianna- McFaddin Preservation Foundation board member, said plans for the church are somewhat uncertain. The church will be available as a rental venue for weddings, baptisms and other events when it reopens. The addition of heat and air-conditioning makes the century-old church appealing for such occasions. But regular church services are not an option because the diocese can no longer provide a priest.
“That used to be a lively community, but there’s not much left of it now,” Dunnam said. “We felt it was important to save the church as part of the county’s heritage. So many grew up on the ranch, and there used to be a thriving community center. Everything has changed over the years.”
Sue McCan Cannon, 92, grew up on the McFaddin Ranch before she married and moved to Colorado in her mid-20s. Although the ranch has been split among family members over generations, and the church sits on land owned by her cousins, Cannon has made the restoration financially possible. The community also hosted a fundraiser that raised about $20,000, she said. She mentioned that she and members of the board of the Marianna- McFaddin Preservation Foundation are discussing the renovation of the old McFaddin Mercantile and creation of a historical district.
“I grew up on the ranch and came back to visit family down there all my life,” she said. “When it looked like it was going south, I thought maybe I should help it, so I’m trying to get it back together.”
The hurricane devastated the church, said Mark Dierlam whose family owns the property on which the church and mercantile sit.
“Sue is the MVP, so to speak; she’s driving it, so God bless her for that – all the credit goes to her,” Dierlam said. “There are not many left from her generation. She’s seen it all and done it all – she’s a neat lady.”
Chronister has not added her signature to the sculptures yet. And she is not sure that she will.
“My presence is with these pieces forever,” she said. “I don’t need to put my name on them.”