“Do you know there’s a homeless person sleeping in the church?”
That’s just one of the comments made lately by people who visit the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary near downtown Baltimore.
The ‘homeless person’ is actually a life-sized sculpture of a homeless person, lying on a park bench. The sculpture has been set up temporarily at the rear of the basilica, against a south facing window. Archbishop William Lori called attention to it when he blessed it yesterday during an Ash Wednesday service, signaling the start of Lent.
The work of art is one of a series of identical sculptures, called Homeless Jesus, that Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz has been casting for installation in cities around the world.
The sculptures depict a human figure lying on a public bench. The figure’s face and hands are covered with a blanket, but his feet are visible and they show signs of wounds, as if from a crucifixion. The implication is that this sleeping figure is the Son of God, and he is homeless.
Lori announced this week in a letter that an anonymous donor has offered to pay for one of the sculptures and donate it to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Lori said in his announcement that he decided Baltimore’s Homeless Jesus should be placed on the grounds of St. Vincent de Paul Church, 120 N. Front Street, which has a park at its base where homeless people congregate.
Lori’s letter was read to the congregation on the occasion of the retirement of Father Richard Lawrence, who stepped down on Sunday after 43 years as the church’s pastor. Lawrence has been one of the city’s leading advocates for the homeless.
The resin model of Schmalz’s sculpture has been set up inside the Basilica for more than a week.
Before the actual sculpture is installed at St. Vincent de Paul Church, the Archdiocese is displaying the lighter replica in different locations to give people a chance to learn about the gift.
A plaque next to the sculpture bears a message from Lori that explains the plan.
“The Homeless Jesus sculpture is a visual representation of the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25,” Lori states.
“The sculpture suggests that Christ is with “the least ones:” the most marginalized in our society. The sculpture depicts Christ cloaked in a blanket. His face is shrouded so that the only indications that the figure is Jesus are his visibly wounded feet…
Saint Vincent de Paul is an appropriate setting for a permanent location, Lori said on the plaque, because it has “devotedly cared for the homeless and poor of Baltimore for many years.”
Thanks to the anonymous donation, he said, “a unique piece of artwork will remind us and others of our obligation to show mercy and compassion to our homeless sisters and brothers, just as Jesus surely would.”
According to Sean Caine, Vice Chancellor and Executive Director of Communications for the Archdiocese, the resin version will be on view at the Basilica until March 10, and then it will be displayed at the Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson.
“The Archbishop wanted people throughout the Archdiocese to see the sculpture, given that its message is applicable in all settings and not just in Baltimore City,” Caine said.
The permanent bronze sculptures are seven feet long, three feet high and weigh about 900 pounds. Baltimore’s sculpture is expected to be ready for installation by the end of the year.
St. Vincent de Paul Church has not decided exactly where the permanent sculpture will be installed, but discussions have centered on St. Vincent de Paul Park, the gated area visible from Fayette Street near Front Street, where homeless people congregate.
According to Laureen Brunelli, director and administrator of evangelization at the church, one idea is to put the sculpture outside the gated area, where it could be seen by people passing the church on Fayette Street.
“We want it to be visible,” she said. “Our intent is to put it outside the fence.”
At the church today, a volunteer marveled at how lifelike the sculpture is and how similar the slatted bench is to the ones Baltimore has had for years.
“It’s just like the ones all over Baltimore,” he said. “Except it doesn’t say ‘The City That Reads.’”