LAKEWOOD, Ohio, February 25, 2012 – A remarkable new museum recently opened in this writer’s old hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Or, more specifically, Cleveland’s closest western suburb, Lakewood, whose northern border, like the larger city’s, is the Lake Erie shore. Located on Madison Avenue, close to the city’s eastern border at W. 117th Street, the aptly named Museum of Divine Statues is located in the former St. Hedwig’s parish church building.
Visiting this newish museum is like taking a step back in time. For religious Catholics and non-Catholics alike who have become accustomed to our current viciously secular political environment, this unusual new museum is a surprisingly moving archive of an already long-ago era during which established churches were still regarded as an integral and highly important part of America’s social fabric. Taken collectively, its exhibited statues, powerful yet mute, are like a static but very real documentary of a society and a community that, for better or worse, we have likely lost forever.
The end of Cleveland’s ethnic parishes
Cleveland, Ohio, has been bleeding population for years. Once one the top five American cities in terms of population, it’s fallen off the map in recent decades due to massive industrial layoffs combined with one of the most corrupt local governments in the U.S. Ditto for Cuyahoga County which contains Cleveland itself and most of the city’s inner suburbs.
During this time frame, Cleveland’s people-drain inevitably engulfed the area’s once-vibrant Roman Catholic, Byzantine, and Maronite communities. Once, you could walk ten blocks in many areas of the city and county and encounter up to two or three matchbox-sized Catholic parishes, each catering to a different flavor of immigrant population.
Over time, however, due to the assimilation of earlier immigrant communities into the population at large coupled with net outmigration, church attendance at many of these tiny, close-knit parishes plummeted.
Add to this heavy demographic trend the ongoing fallout from the Church’s disgraceful child molestation scandals; the concurrent lack of priestly vocations; the sharp drop in church attendance; and the lingering effect of the Great Depression II on the collection basket, and you have a recipe for institutional disaster.
From a business standpoint, the most obvious way to cope with this is to close fiscally “underperforming” parishes and conduct an ongoing fire sale of church buildings, profits, and assets in order to raise cash. The practical result: the mass shuttering of many of these small, historic, and vintage ethnic parishes in Cleveland and elsewhere in the Cleveland archdiocese.
Protests against many of these church closings were and still is vociferous, leading in some cases to a reconsideration by the archdiocese of a limited number of individual closings. But most of these shutdowns and parish decomissionings have stood. Buildings and property have been sold. And church furnishings, including pews, artwork, sacred vessels, vestments, and even scores of sacred statues have either been dispatched, sold, or given away.
For many old line Catholics—and even some younger ones—the elimination of many of these old religious statues bordered on sacrilege. Historically, when it came to the topic of statues in church, many a conservative Protestant congregation regarded them as a scandal. It looked to them like idolatry—the worship of statues.
On the other hand, practicing Catholics have always regarded their statuary as anything but, reminding those who objected to their presence that such objects were meant to serve as visual reminders of the Holy Family and the saints, the better to focus prayer and contemplation.
This was a particularly important part of the worship practices of old-line European Catholics who immigrated to this country. Statues of national and local saints not only served as a worship aid for these Catholics. They also served as comforting reminders of the beloved homelands to which, given the complex circumstances and politics of the 20th century, these Catholics realized that they would never return.
In any event, those times seem long gone now, and many of the Churches that gave these American immigrants hope, comfort, and solace, have disappeared as well, taking with them the sense and the spirit of an earlier, simpler, but more fervent religious era.
It was during the late stages of this era that this Cleveland born writer was raised over half a century ago. The 1950s, prior to Vatican II were, in the Catholic community at least, not significantly different from the late 19th century. Mass was still said by the priest only in indecipherable Latin. Churches were hushed and incense filled, and private devotion, even during Mass was commonplace. And during these private devotions, each church’s many statues kept eyes, hearts, minds, and souls focused on loyalty, sacrifice, and devotion as inspired by the saints, putting to rest for at least an hour or so the cares and temptations of the world.
But, as always, time marches on. As these churches are repurposed, razed, or otherwise eliminated, their loss can fairly be likened to the bulldozing of old, run down, but historic neighborhoods for re-development or, worse, urban renewal. And as this happens, we, as a people, slowly lose connection and contact with our history, our ethnicity, and indeed, with the entirety of our past.
St. Hedwig Parish finds a new purpose
It’s a religious axiom that the Lord moves in mysterious ways. Nowhere in Lakewood is this manifested more effectively than by the Museum of Religious Statues, currently based in the church sanctuary of the former St. Hedwig Parish which long catered to the area’s once significant Polish community. Hedwig (1174-1243), the longtime wife of King Henry I of Silesia was a notably devout woman who strongly supported monastic communities during and after her husband’s death. Canonized in 1267, she’s regarded as the patron saint of Silesia, most of which became part of modern Poland.
The shutdown of St. Hedwig Parish soon attracted the attention of Lou McClung, an artist who runs his own high-end commercial makeup firm, Lusso Cosmetics. The parish buildings, which also include a small, former parochial school, gave McClung a brilliant idea. He could move his growing cosmetics firm and manufacturing facility to larger quarters in the school. He could take up residence in the old parish rectory. And, perhaps most innovative of all, he could redeploy the sanctuary of the old church to serve as a religious museum devoted to the religious statues that had inspired him as a Catholic youth. He’d been rescuing and restoring many of the statues of the shuttered area parishes. Here was the perfect place for making them available for viewing and contemplation once again.
McClung explains his philosophy below in this video download created by The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s major news daily.
Sinking his own money into the project, McClung has repurposed the church into a marvelously sensitive space that perfectly displays the restored statues in a physical and lighting environment that brilliantly recalls the silent, awe-inspiring atmosphere of Catholic churches of old. Each statue or object has been expertly curated, with the history of the statue itself plus its religious significance carefully noted for the public. Walking among these statues thus becomes an educational experience as well.
Creating additional interest, McClung’s restoration studio is housed in a glassed-in area at the church’s rear, and he’s often busily at work putting yet another salvaged icon back into working order. The museum boasted at least 100 statues at last count, along with other artifacts like artwork, vessels, and stained glass windows.
Oddly, the statues themselves are, in a way, nothing special, as McClung explained to this writer when he toured this facility early this year. Even back in the day, ethnic parishes, supported by working class Catholics, were not exactly bastions of wealth. So when they acquired statues for their parish churches, they weren’t contracting with some expensive, latter day Michelangelo to create this religious art.
Most of the statues, according to McClung, were the work of local or regional immigrant Italian craftsmen, simple plaster cast sculptures that were of mass production quality though at a very small scale. The craftsmen then hand-painted the statues and delivered them to their church customers. The statues are effective, at least in a devotional sense, and are realistic enough.
Over the years, however, paint fades, plaster chips, and fingertips and toes are knocked off entirely by the occasional careless parishioner who’s volunteered to spruce up each statues. When McClung takes these damaged statues in, he re-sculpts the missing parts and restores the faded or damaged colors, at least to the extent that he can determine what they reasonably were at one time.
The statues themselves are sometimes ethereal and otherworldly. At other times, they are startling in the depiction of violence, particularly those statues that depict the sainted martyrs who died all manner of horrible deaths. There is of course, a statue of the famous St. Sebastian, pierced through with arrows shot into his body. And, of course, St Joan of Arc, the teenager who led her people to victory only to be betrayed by them and burnt at the stake by the enemy.
Then there’s St. Lucy, who carries her old eyeballs on a plate, leaving little to the imagination with regard to her particular sufferings during martyrdom. And let’s not forget Czech-Bohemian patron Saint John Nepomucine, the Martyr of the Confessional, who was tortured and eventually drowned by his kind who demanded that John reveal what the queen told him in the confessional.
It’s interesting to reflect upon the fact that the ancient Catholic Church—not unlike some current expressions of Islam—regarded bloody martyrdom as the most glorious and direct ticket to heaven. Most of the museum’s statues, however, eschew the blood and gore, although the notion of holy suffering on this earth is often implicit.
McClung’s unusual museum lives on donations, which, in time he hopes will help him establish a better museum shop and perhaps even a small cafeteria for museum visitors. The museum might prove an intriguing and welcome side-trip for music fans that make the pilgrimage to Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In any event, there’s really nothing quite like it. So the curious—and the religious—might want to put it on their itinerary the next time they find themselves with a little time to spare while lodging in Cleveland and environs. It’s a remarkable step back in time to an older, calmer, simpler, and more secure era, a time machine that takes you back to a time when religion was not a dirty word, when devotion and belief was something not to be sneered at, and when traditional morality was not to be despised.
The Museum of Divine Statues, 12905 Madison Ave., Lakewood, Ohio, 44107. Phone: 216-228-9950. Open Sundays only or by appointment. Admission: $8.00.
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