By Gerry Jackson
A bronze, gold-leafed statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary looked over the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University for nearly six decades.
After 57 years of sun, wind and rain taking their toll, the Emmitsburg college has been looking after that 25-foot iconic figure with a yearlong refurbishment that is nearly complete. The statue is expected to be returned to its high perch at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes overlooking the campus and surrounding countryside this summer.
“It’s lonely up here,” joked Dawn Walsh, director of the National Shrine Grotto. “Not seeing Our Lady up on that hill is just a little strange.”
Walsh, a 1983 Mount graduate, said she first enjoyed the comforts of seeing the figure of the Blessed Mother when she was an undergraduate.
“I’d return from my parents’ home in Philadelphia and as soon as I turned the corner and saw the Blessed Mother, I knew I was at my college home,” Walsh said of the statue, which sat atop the 95-foot Pangborn Memorial Campanile since 1964.
Generations have felt the same comfort, and that’s why the grotto quickly was able to raise $200,000 to replace the gold-leaf gilding. However, when contractors got the scaffolding in place to restore the gilding, they soon saw more work was needed. Corrosion had eaten away at the inside of the structure and its steel support system.
“It had been 30 years since she had been re-gilded,” Walsh said. “When we got the scaffolding up there, we saw that we had a bigger challenge.”
The statue was removed for repair in July by Big Hook Crane, a Union Bridge company owned by Mount St. Mary’s graduates, and transported to a facility in Fairfax, Va., owned by ADTEK Engineers of Frederick. In addition to the repairs of the statue being performed by ADTEK, contractors in Emmitsburg are repairing the mortar base for its arrival home.
The additional repairs will cost an estimated $500,000. Fundraising is underway with $100,000 already brought in. Donations can be made by visiting msmary.edu/restoremary.
Repairs are expected to be complete in late July or August, and the school plans to hold a festival when the statue is returned.
“It’s what I call bittersweet,” Walsh said. “It’s bitter to look up and not see her beauty. We’re looking forward to seeing her back in place. The sweet part will be knowing that she will be up there for at least the next 100 years once these restorations are complete.”
The grotto complex is at the entrance to the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes at the site of the old Church of St. Mary, also known as the Church on the Hill, which was erected in 1805 by the university’s founder, Sulpician Father John Dubois; it was the place of worship for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
In 2021, the university’s president, Tim Trainor, noted during an annual May crowning ceremony that the statue was in need of a touch-up. He started the campaign to raise the initial $200,000 for re-gilding.
The statue was commissioned in 1964 from Italian sculptor Marcello Tommasi and cast from a full-size plaster model in Pietrasanta, Italy. It was transported to Baltimore by boat and then to Emmitsburg by truck. At the time of the dedication of the Pangborn Memorial Campanile May 1, 1964, the statue was believed to be the largest ever imported to the United States in a single piece.
The monument was completed under the direction of Monsignor Hugh J. Phillips after a donation by Thomas W. Pangborn, a Hagerstown industrialist and philanthropist who died in 1967. Mount St. Mary’s also plans to refurbish The Way, a meditation path that leads from the seminary to the grotto.
Email Gerry Jackson at gjackson@CatholicReview.org