East Taunton church restores long-hidden altar treasure


By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff
kensouza@anchornews.org

EAST TAUNTON, Mass. — In Revelations, chapter 21, Christ appeared to John in a vision and told him: “Behold, I make all things new.”

At Holy Family Parish, a group of determined parishioners have likewise been hard at work to make “all things new” inside their beloved East Taunton house of worship.

taunton_altar

And one striking piece of artwork that was thought long lost — a three-dimensional plaster depiction of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural, “The Last Supper” — has literally been resurrected and returned to its former glory after being stashed away in a neighborhood basement for some 40 years.

In a story that could rival the plot of an Indiana Jones film, it was during a recent church renovation project that pastor Father Kevin Cook remembered someone mentioning the once-prominent altar centerpiece.

“One day after Mass, one of our parishioners, Karen Daley, approached me and I asked her about an image of the Last Supper she told me about years before,” Father Cook relayed in the July 28-29 parish bulletin. “She mentioned how when the church was renovated in a more radical way back in the 1970s, the high altar was dismantled and buried in the back of the church property. In that altar was an image of the Last Supper that she said she would love to look at as a young girl at Mass and helped her pray.”

When the church was renovated in the early 1970s to reflect the Liturgical changes after Vatican II, the Last Supper mural was removed and Daley’s father, Robert Silva, humbly asked then-pastor Father Robert F. Kirby if he could have it.

“This parishioner approached the pastor and asked: ‘Father, can I have that image? You know, it’s beautiful and it’s been there since I was a little boy in this parish, and I’d like to have it,’” Deacon Bob Craig told The Anchor. “So he said, sure, go ahead and take it. So the guy took it, but he didn’t know what to do with it. I mean, the thing is like six-feet long, what are you going to do with that? Put it up in your living room? So he put it in his basement and there it sat.”

“When the church went through initial renovations in the ’70s, they were going to bury this sculpture but my grandfather, who lived two houses down from the church, asked if he could have it,” said Silva’s granddaughter, Jessie Vieira, in a recent Facebook posting. “This sculpture sat in the basement of that home, throughout many years and many different homeowners.”

According to Father Cook, one parishioner who owned the house for nearly 20 years, Marcel Sorel, informed him that he was always very careful with the sculpture when he had to move it but he refused to get rid of it “because it was so beautiful and it was from the church,” he said.

Curious about the mural’s whereabouts and condition, Father Cook and Daley soon approached the current homeowner, a non-parishioner, who was only too happy to return it to the church where it belonged. But years of sitting in a musty basement had taken its toll on the sculpture.

“Our plan was to get it and if it was in disrepair, we would bury it, but if we could use it, we would,” Father Cook said. “We came to find out the image was intact, but it had one main break across the table of the Last Supper and the side molding was gone.”

“Father Cook went to look at it and sure enough, there it was sitting in the basement of this house,” Deacon Craig said. “But it’s made of a plaster composite of a statue-like material. So they weren’t really sure how stable it was; so it took a couple of people to go help lift it up. As soon as they lifted it up, it started to crumble. The back just fell apart. They took it out of there in like four or five boxes.”

“It broke into about seven or eight major pieces,” Father Cook said. “Amazingly, the main characters did not break, but everything else crumbled.”

Undeterred, Father Cook approached parishioner Paula Yetman and asked if she knew anyone who did statue repair work.

“Paula just had a woman named Patricia Brady join her (prayer group) recently,” Father Cook explained. “Patricia just moved to Massachusetts from out of state, and had just mentioned to Paula she loves fixing religious statues and if she knew of anyone who needed any repair to let her know. God’s finger was surely at work on this project.”

“So the connection was made, but I remember Father Cook said, ‘I’ll have her look at it just in case, but you know I’m not expecting she’s going to be able to do anything and then I’ll just have to bury this out where the other stuff from the old Sanctuary is,’” Deacon Craig said. “She came and looked at it in the boxes and said she could work with it. In a day, she had it all put back together and re-plastered!”

In another bit of Divine providence, Deacon Craig remembered meeting a carpenter named Michael LaPlante from St. Nicholas of Myra Parish in North Dighton at the March for Life in Washington, D.C. last year. He remembered LaPlante talking about the recent altar renovations he did at his own parish, so Deacon Craig reached out to him.

“He came over and built a rectangular frame that could be put into our altar and if you look at it today, it looks like it’s always been there,” he said.

Within a month, the meticulous work of restoring the mural to its original glory and the crafting of a suitable frame to contain it were complete.

“It was fascinating to see it come together at first like a puzzle, and then how they recreated all the missing and broken parts,” Father Cook said. “Michael reinforced the whole image and then incorporated it into our existing altar. Then Sutton Fleming, who we hired to repaint the altar and lectern, painted it to have an antique look.”

When the restoration work was finally complete and the Last Supper was once again back as the centerpiece of the parish’s Eucharistic table, many older parishioners were moved to see something they fondly remembered from their childhood.

“People who had been going to this parish for 50 years, the first thing they saw when we had Mass that weekend was an image that had been in the church when they were children,” Deacon Craig said. “It was just beautiful. And to top it all off, when we asked (Patricia Brady) how much she was going to charge to repair it, she said ‘for the glory of God,’ and she wouldn’t take a penny.”

Sadly, the man who had the foresight to save the image from being buried and lost forever has since passed away and wasn’t able to see the restoration himself, but his granddaughter remains proud that it’s back where it belongs.

“It was restored and brought back to life and I got to witness how beautiful it really is,” Vieira wrote on her Facebook page. “I can’t even explain how emotional it made me, but I know that not only did it help bring me some closure from my grandfather’s passing, but I also felt his presence strongly in that church today. Every time I go back, I know he will be right there with me. I know that wherever he is up there, he was looking down and is now at peace that the sculpture he saved is right back where it belongs.”

Father Cook hopes the artwork will inspire people during Masses to more deeply contemplate and appreciate the gift that Jesus has given us: the Eucharist.

“It is an amazing story of how an image that helped so many people over 70 years to pray on the Last Supper and the Eucharist was removed, and how others instinctively protected this image,” he said. “Amazingly, God moved different peoples’ hearts to be in the right place, and using the gifts He has given them, to bring something back to the life of this parish.”


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