Virgin Mary Statue Gleams After Extensive Restoration
By Gina Gallucci-White and Photography by Turner Photography Studio
In late July, Big Hook Crane & Rigging “was tasked with returning the gold-leafed statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary to its home at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg.
As the 26-foot-tall bronze statue was hoisted into the air to be placed on top of the 78-foot-tall Pangborn Campanile—the bell tower that also serves as the base for the statue—company president Cecilia Gregory stood in the grotto directing her son Brock, who was operating the crane. “Brock was asking us over the radios, ‘Does she need to go more to the left? Does she need to go more to right? Is she square to the front?’” Gregory recalls. “We are down there giving him the final [instructions] and I thought, ‘This is how she is going to be. Whatever we say here is how she is going to stand forever,’ and that was pretty amazing to think about.”
The statue, which welcomes more than 300,000 annual visitors from across the globe, had been absent from the shrine for just over a year, undergoing a lengthy renovation. Every May, an annual crowning ceremony is held where the university president places a 12-foot silk flower crown on Mary’s head. During the ceremony in 2021, debris was discovered on the ledge of the base as well as chipping of the gold leaf. When engineers later inspected the statue, they discovered the interior armature that was holding Mary in place had corroded. The substantial restoration and repair could not take place on site.
Installed in May 1964, the statue was created by Italian sculptor Marcelo Tommasi and cast in a full-size plaster model in Pietrasanta, Italy. Commissioned by Hagerstown philanthropist and industrialist Thomas W. Pangborn, the Blessed Virgin Mary made its way to Baltimore by boat and later trucked to Emmitsburg. The statue is believed to be the largest statue ever imported to the United States in one piece. Prior to 2021, the only significant restoration it required was a new coat of gold leaf in the 1980s.
Robert Marshall of R. Alden Marshall & Associates served as the architect of the project, assessing the structure and coordinating the restoration. His company, based in Pennsylvania and Texas, applied new gold leaf to the statue. Marshall is a conservator performing artwork restoration across the country, but the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of the largest statues his firm has ever worked on. He recalls driving by the statue on U.S. 15 some 30 years ago and being amazed by its beauty.
During his assessment, he noted the statue was leaning forward slightly and there was a crack showing stress on the bronze, leading to the discovery that the armature was no longer functioning. “They needed to get [the statue] out of there when they did,” he says. “They really lucked out. They decided to look at it at exactly the right time.”
The stones beneath Mary were also in poor shape, likely damaged from years of rainwater settling and freezing. There were also gaps between the stones. “What we found was in 1964 they used a lot of newspaper to put between the stones,” Marshall says. “Of course, that all needed to come out.”
A copper cap was placed on the top of the base to divert water from the interior. The entire campanile was repointed after further damage and gaps were discovered.
The restoration of the statue took place in Manassas, Va., where the armature was rebuilt and breaches from weather were repaired. Special coating and paint were applied to the exterior to ensure the gold leaf would properly adhere.
Marshall credits the university for being proactive in the statue’s restoration and listening to recommendations. “That’s a great situation for an art conservator because we recommend all sorts of different treatments and procedures that aren’t always carried out, but they went ahead and went the extra mile,” he says.
Director of the National Shrine Grotto Dawn Walsh can see the campanile from her office widow. Turning at her desk, she points to the window. “You can see it looks brand new,” she says. “It looks beautiful.”
The project was initially budgeted at $200,000 when it was believed that only a regilding was necessary. However, the extensive restoration ballooned costs to $950,000. A fundraising campaign has been underway for more than a year to cover the expenses. Visitors to the grotto and its website can make donations to the project. (Donation boxes at the candles do not go toward the project and instead are put toward buying new candles.) Staff also solicited donations from grotto donors and university alumni. The campaign needs about $325,000 to reach its fundraising goal.
“People have been very generous,” Walsh says. “… It is so edifying and it is humbling because people’s generosity is remarkable. It is remarkable to see how generous people can be because economically these could be considered challenging times and yet this is an important place and they feel a part of it and they want to contribute to it. It is a blessing to be here to witness it.”
Not having the shining statue for more than a year was a deprivation, Walsh says. Brides and graduates couldn’t have photos taken with the Blessed Mother. Even drivers and passengers on U.S. 15 missed the gleaming gold figure standing tall. “I would get calls [saying], ‘Where is she? What happened?’ because if you are not here all the time you don’t know. People would be surprised when they just took for granted for 60 years that she was there and then she wasn’t there. … Everybody missed her so much.”
Big Hook helped take the statue down and put her back. The company regularly provides equipment for the annual crowning ceremony, but moving a delicate statue was a unique job for staff that typically move air conditioning units, roof trusses and cell towers. There was no lift hook on the statue and straps had to be carefully placed to avoid damage.
Cecilia Gregory credits her son with determining how to safely move the statue. Brock Gregory studied all aspects, including the thickness of the brass and the strength of the entire structure. He ended up utilizing the statue’s hands during the lifting process and was able to distribute the weight evenly. To avoid further damage of the statue’s skin, Mary was hauled on a flatbed with no tarp for her journey. “It was a lot of fun following her to Virginia and back, seeing the expressions of people on the road,” Gregory says.
The grotto is a special place for the Gregory family. Cecilia Gregory is a graduate of the university and grew up on a family farm below the grotto. Both of her parents as well as many family members are buried in the cemetery there. Gregory recalls as a child working on the farm all day, taking a bath and then putting on her church clothes to attend Novena during the summer months. When she and her husband, Steve, were dating, they would ride their motorcycles to mass. She moved to tears when the Blessed Virgin Mary was placed back in her home.
“To have Mount people who cared so much about the statue be involved in the transport was a blessing,” Walsh says.
Once the statue was back, the next step was adding the gold leaf—a process that took weeks to complete. The work was done in sections with gilders putting on one sheet at a time. “The gold itself is as close to 24 carats as you can get,” Marshall says. “It is 23.75 carats so that makes it about almost 99 percent pure gold. We ordered a very thick weight gold so that we get the most amount of longevity from this gilding job as we could get.” He estimates the gilding will last 35 years.
Walsh notes the joy and comfort of having the Blessed Mother back at the grotto. “You don’t even realize how much [the statue] means to you until it was gone,” she says.