By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff reporter | Published July 24, 2014
CUMMING—For years, the parishioners of St. Brendan the Navigator Church in Cumming have attended Masses, joyous baptisms and weddings, and solemn funerals with the backdrop of a beautiful Celtic cross behind the altar. All the while they have hoped and prayed to be able to add the corpus of Jesus to the cross.
During the most recent Lenten season, the St. Brendan community received the answer to their nearly 15 years of patient prayers. A corpus of poplar wood, custom made by an inmate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, now hangs on the cross.
“You can’t take your eyes off it in the church,” said Jane Smith, a St. Brendan parishioner for seven years.
The grandfather of a newly baptized child had approached St. Brendan pastor, Father Matthew VanSmoorenburg, a priest of the Legionaries of Christ, about wanting to make a significant contribution. The priest was hoping to complete altar enhancements, including the addition of a corpus and mentioned that.
“We had the Celtic cross. It had always been the idea the corpus would be put on it. I thought it was a good time,” said Father VanSmoorenburg.
The donor, a businessman with various ties, already knew of two possible sources for a corpus, including a company in Mexico or an artisan imprisoned at the Louisiana penitentiary, more widely known by its location, as Angola prison.
The pastor suggested giving the prisoner the opportunity to craft the corpus.
Father VanSmoorenburg said he was thinking of St. Dismas, the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus, and a view of his relationship to Christ.
“That was my mind,” said Father VanSmoorenburg. “What a better artist to ask?”
Inmate Marty Hebert, serving a life sentence for murder, carved the life-size image of Jesus in 10 weeks. It was his first crucifix project, and a fellow inmate fashioned a replica of the parish’s Celtic cross so they could envision how it would look when attached.
When Father VanSmoorenburg received word that the corpus was finished, he and business manager Laurie Johnson called upon parishioners Mike and Diana Artzer to make the 1,200-mile trip by box truck to transport it.
Artzer, a member of the parish Knights of Columbus, said this was their first visit to a prison.
“We did a little research on the place,” he said. Their research included learning about Angola’s warden, Burl Cain, and his belief in moral rehabilitation of inmates.
The Artzers took a load of theology books to the prison chaplain, stayed overnight at a guesthouse and attended Mass at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel at Angola. It is the only Catholic chapel at a maximum-security prison in the U.S. The inmates served as the lectors, servers and musicians during Mass.
The couple also met the assistant warden and toured the death row area and execution rooms.
The Artzers had the chance to meet Hebert, who explained that he had prayed often about the project, particularly how to portray the face of Jesus at peace. He stared at the carving in the evenings and made several drawings to help create the six-by-six-foot image.
The Artzers watched as Hebert and two other inmates carried Jesus to the tomb-like truck. “It was almost like going on the Passion,” said Artzer.
One of the inmates had a stack of white, heavy blankets for cushioning the sculpture. “We put Jesus into the white shroud,” he added.
While they had some trepidation in visiting Angola, Artzer said everyone was very cordial to them. They have remained in touch with the chaplain there in hopes of supplying Catholic materials.
The new corpus was first displayed on the eight-by-10-foot replica Celtic cross in the parish’s narthex the weekend of March 23, the third Sunday of Lent.
Father VanSmoorenburg wanted to give everyone a chance to see Jesus close up.
“The reception was universally happy. Everybody embraced it,” said the pastor. “I knew people would fall in love with it.”
The weekend the corpus was displayed in the narthex, the Gospel reading was of Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Father VanSmoorenburg thought it fitting that this New Testament story of conversion could be tied into the arrival of a corpus sculpted by a prisoner who is turning to God.
Next, came the question of when and how to affix the corpus to the original cross in the sanctuary.
The first plan was to use suspension cables to hang the sculpture, but then Artzer had a providential experience.
Upon his return to Atlanta, he was driving near Buckhead and noticed a black box truck advertising a company with expertise in hanging sculptures and large works of art. Although he could only make out the area code, a subsequent search online helped him locate the company that owned the truck.
“God has a purpose,” said Artzer.
A representative of the company came to the parish and determined that a less visually invasive French clip could be used to mount the sculpture with no damage to the cross.
Pinecrest Academy’s high school art teacher, Alison Batley, used an oil mixture to darken or enhance the features of Christ so they could be more easily seen from afar.
“Everyone worked hand in hand,” said Artzer.
Following the weekday Mass on Thursday, April 10, Father VanSmoorenburg conducted a blessing of the corpus—the first one he had ever done.
“I looked it up in the Book of Blessings,” he said.
Artzer and other Knights participated in the blessing ceremony.
“It was very, very empowering. It was just breathtaking,” said Artzer.
The pastor said the second Celtic cross made at Angola would be placed elsewhere at the parish.
Jane Smith wrote a letter to thank Hebert for the beautiful image of Christ’s sacrifice. She wanted to encourage him after her experience of helping a friend through a jail sentence. “I had a friend who I saw through three and a half years of incarceration here in Atlanta.”
Smith said this gift from an unlikely artist inspired a July 6 homily by her friend Deacon Ken Lampert at St. Michael Church in Gainesville. She had decided to visit the parish and was asked to help bring up the gifts. Smith said she was surprised to hear the topic of Deacon Lampert’s homily.
“Gifts from God come from everywhere, from the most remote places, and they come to us when we least expect it,” said the deacon.
He told those at St. Michael that their Cumming neighbors revealed the new corpus on Palm Sunday, and that God had used a carpenter by trade, serving a life sentence, to bring hope to others.
“Our human weaknesses point to the fact that holiness is a gift from God, and it is not a human creation. This holiness from God is given to ordinary men and women with weaknesses. It is God who over time gradually transforms the weaknesses into Christ’s image,” said Deacon Lampert in his homily.
Father VanSmoorenburg said the parish has a strategic planning committee looking at other needs and that it may be possible for Angola artisans to do other work, including stained glass windows.
Susan Shirley serves as St. Brendan communications coordinator and created a digital and print newsletter for the feast of Corpus Christi June 22, chronicling the journey of receiving the woodcarving.
“It’s been a unifying thing,” said Shirley of the new corpus.
On Palm Sunday, Father VanSmoorenburg said he reminded the people that the crucifix serves as a depiction of Marty Hebert’s connection with Jesus.
“He will testify for years to you about who he thinks Christ is,” said the priest.