‘Homeless Jesus’ sculpture installed outside St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore

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The ‘Homeless Jesus’ sculpture installed outside St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore. Photo by Ed Gunts.

He’s turned up in Washington, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Dublin, Rome, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney–more than 60 cities in all.

Now he’s found a spot in Baltimore as well.

“Homeless Jesus” is the name of Baltimore’s newest work of public art, a sculpture in the park downtown next to St. Vincent de Paul Church at 120 N. Front Street.

From a distance, it looks like a man sleeping on a park bench, wrapped in a blanket that doesn’t quite cover his feet.

When visitors get closer, they see that the life-sized figure is made of bronze, and his feet have nail punctures, as if by a crucifixion. The implication is that this sleeping figure is the son of God, and he is homeless.

The slatted bench, also bronze, rests on a stone surface within the park where homeless people are known to congregate–and welcomed by the church.

“Homeless Jesus,” also known as Jesus the Homeless, is the work of Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, who is Catholic and has devoted the past five years to creating the same sculpture for cities around the world.

Schmalz has said he was inspired after seeing a homeless person lying on a park bench in Canada, and that his sculpture is intended to make viewers think about the homeless people they might pass on the street every day.

“It’s meant to challenge people,” he said in a 2014 interview broadcast on National Public Radio.

The original sculpture was installed at the University of Toronto. The first replica in the United States was purchased for $22,000 by an Episcopal church in Davidson, North Carolina. Since then, Schmalz has created more than 60, often for churches that want to send a message about the plight of the homeless and how others can help. Sites include the Vatican and Catholic Charities offices in several cities. They cost between $20,000 and $40,000.

Baltimore’s version was commissioned by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, using funds from an anonymous donor.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori announced in February 2017 that the figure would be placed in St. Vincent de Paul Church Park as a way to honor Father Richard Lawrence, who was retiring after 43 years as pastor.

Lawrence is a longtime civic leader and advocate for homeless people. Under his leadership, the church made the park at Fayette and Front streets a refuge for anyone who needed one. Lori wrote last year that he believed it was a fitting location for Schmalz’s work.

“This is one way of showing our gratitude for the long and loving service of Father Lawrence” and his “care for the homeless and hungry of Baltimore,” Lori wrote in a letter read to the congregation.

Before the Catholic church stepped in, the sculpture was proposed for another location in Baltimore, a spot in front of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, just steps from the Washington Monument.

A survey of Mount Vernon stakeholders revealed that they were concerned that putting the statue of a homeless person on such a prominent street corner might encourage homeless people to sleep on benches in the four public squares that surround the monument–a practice that is prohibited after dusk. After a new pastor came to the church several years ago, the idea was nixed.

Bishop Denis Madden blessing the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture. Photo by Ed Gunts.

The statue was dedicated on Sunday by Bishop Denis Madden, following a mass with Madden, Lawrence and Father Ray Chase, who replaced Lawrence as pastor. Schmalz was in Rome and could not attend. The service was one of Lawrence’s first visits back to the church since he retired.

Although there are other Homeless Jesus sculptures, “this is a unique spot,” said Colleen McCahill, pastoral associate at the church, because it’s one of the only ones placed in “a gathering spot for the homeless.”

“We want people to understand that homelessness is a complex issue,” Chase said. “We want people to recognize… that each person is in the image of God. The hope is that, if they have lost their dignity, they might rediscover their dignity, and that may help those who rediscover their dignity to move on to whatever is the next step in life for them.”

Chase said there will be a small plaque near the sculpture to identity the work of art and indicate there was an anonymous donor, but nothing lengthy for viewers to read.

“There shouldn’t be a need for explanation,” he said. “It’s evocative enough to draw their attention and make them think.”

Lawrence said he likes the sculpture and the way it was placed in the park.

“Art should have a meaning,” he said. “Whether it’s a statue or poetry or theater, it should tell you something.”

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