Religious sculptures bring art, healing to downtown
Youngstown churches gifted first two in series
YOUNGSTOWN — Bronze sculptures depicting Jesus by world-renowned artist Timothy P. Schmalz can be seen in downtown Youngstown, if you know where to look.
Schmalz’s bronze scuplture “Homeless Jesus” has become a global phenomenon and can now be found in nearly 100 cities around the world. Schmalz is from Saint Jacobs, Ontario, Canada and created “Homeless Jesus” in November 2011 after being inspired by a homeless man sleeping on a park bench. The only indication the figure is Jesus is the nail marks on his feet, which are visible as he lies on the bench huddled under a blanket, according to Schmalz’s website.
The conversation sparked by that sculpture prompted Schmalz to start a series of sculptures based on the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, in which Jesus tells a parable that includes the lines “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, and I was in prison and you visited me.”
All of the Matthew 25 original pieces found historical placements in Rome in the year of Mercy 2016, according to Tony Frey, secretary-treasurer of Schmalz’s company. But one does not need to travel to Rome to see these scupltures.
A replica of the “When I was Naked” bronze scuplture can be seen in the grassy area in front of St. John Episcopal Church on Wick Avenue, next to the main branch of the library. The Rev. Gayle Catinella, pastor there, said the scuplture was purchased in September 2019 by the Lowry family of Youngstown in memory of their son, Michael Lowry, who died in September 2018 of a drug overdose at the age of 34.
Catinella said the Lowrys were not members of St. John, but they wanted it displayed there because of its high visibility.
“They knew a lot of people would see it there, and they wanted it to be appreciated,” Catinella said.
She said St. John Episcopal Church is a patron of the arts and the religious-themed sculpture is a perfect fit.
The figure of Jesus depicted in the sculpture has his hand extended and the nail wound from Christ’s crucifixion is visible. Catinella said people put coins in the wound and she just leaves it there “for whoever needs it.” She said Michael Lowry’s family sometimes will put flowers by the sculpture and hosts coat and food giveaways at the church in his honor.
“He was an advocate for the homeless, providing them with much needed items through various functions within the community,” his obituary states.
“It has been a real blessing for them to commemorate their loved one this way and it has been blessing for us to be beneficiaries of their gift,” Catinella said.
Just a few blocks south on Wick Avenue, the sculpture “When I Was Hungry and Thirsty” can be found outside First Presbyterian Church of Youngstown at the corner of Wick and Wood streets. Pastor Rebecca Kahnt said the church received its sculpture a year ago after Frey saw the church’s message board said something about social justice.
“He (Frey) said he had this Homeless Jesus statue that someone donated and he wanted to give it to us, but the people who donated it wanted it to go to a Catholic church,” Kahnt said. “We lost one of our longtime parishioners, Sue Van Zandt, in April 2019 and her daughter, Jill McBride, bought the Matthew 25 sculpture and donated it to the church in her mom’s memory.”
The sculpture has an outstretched hand with a nail mark and he is pointing at an empty cup and plate. Kahnt said people leave money in the plate and bowl and if someone needs it, they can take it. She said some people will come sit by the sculpture to pray, while others will just come and sit in silence next to it.
“It is drawing people to our church. This is a way for Jill to honor her mother and exemplify how she lived. It is publicity for our church and lets people know all are welcome here and they can come here and be fed.”
Frey said Schmalz would eventually like to see Homeless Jesus and the other three Matthew 25 sculptures placed around Youngstown.
“This not only shows the community the ecumenical solidarity among the city’s churches but also serves to keep the ideals of Matthew 25 in the minds of the people as these sculptures are like pastors on outdoor pulpits preaching the gospel 24/7,” Frey wrote in an email to the newspaper.
He said “Homeless Jesus” is intended for St. Columba Cathedral a few blocks west of First Presbyterian, but it has not been purchased yet because the cathedral — which is the home parish of the Diocese of Youngstown — will be undergoing a renovation and part of the plan includes finding a place for the sculpture. He said the church has the funds for the statue from “the will of a beloved priest that passed and we have been assured it just a matter of when, not if,” the email states.
Frey said if he has his way, the “When I Was Sick” sculpture would be placed at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, “When I Was in Prison” would be placed on the sidewalk in front of Trinity Methodist Church on Front Street, and “When I Was a Stranger” would be placed on the large patch of grass in front of First Christian Church across from Youngstown State University’s Bliss Hall.
“It’s pretty remarkable that we have two of these sculptures right here in our downtown. I only hope more are added,” Catinella said.