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Restoring the Heavenly Host

by Virginia Mullery

St. Clare of Assisi had a hole in her head when Lou McClung rescued her from the murky depths of a resale store seven years ago. Today, beautiful and restored to her former glory, she resides in the Museum of Divine Statues in Lakewood, OH, a suburb of Cleveland.

Statue Restoration
Artist Lou McClung surrounded by some of the restored statues in the Museum of Divine Statutes. Photo courtesy of Lou McClung

McClung is a makeup artist, who manufactures his own line of cosmetics, Lusso Cosmetics, and, until he stumbled onto the life-size statue of St. Clare, he said, he was devoted to restoring women's faces. Now, he still does that but he also devotes a great deal of his time to restoring statues from Catholic churches. The same techniques of mixing colors and knowing bone structure apply, he said. He is also a photographer and his knowledge of light and shadow plays into the restoration work. Using simple tools such as chisels, files and brushes, he learned by trial and error how to work with plaster, how to use wood filler, how to get the colors right. He often referred to a 1927 catalog from the Deprato Co. of Chicago, (now DepratoRigali Inc.) a venerable firm that had created many of the statues.

After working on the first statue, McClung said, he was hooked. Word of his work spread and he was hired by several churches to repair and restore statues, including one of St. Alphonsus Liguori who had lost his hand. McClung made a mold using a friend's hand. Gregory Snyder, president of the parish council of St. Alphonsus Church in Seattle, WA, who hired him to repair the 100-year-old statue, which had been donated to them, said, "This statue had been in a basement gathering dust for 50 years and was pretty badly nicked and scratched. He not only replaced the hand but also the bishop's crozier. It was a successful, seamless fix."

Snyder added, "Lou was head and shoulders above other restorers I considered. I appreciated his approach. He has reverence for what the statue evokes. He does not look at it as just art."

When the Diocese of Cleveland announced in 2009 that some 50 Catholic churches would close, McClung's hobby became a mission to save the See MULLERY on next page beautiful old statues.

Cleveland was once a steel town, a city of immigrants, and the churches represented that heritage: Irish, Polish, German, Hungarian, Bohemian and Lithuanian. They were filled with beautiful art treasures, although during the rush to modernize in the 1970s, many statues had been relegated to storage areas, McClung said. He found them in choir lofts, closets and basements, forlorn and neglected. Word of his mission spread and people began to alert him to where to look. Priests and lay people brought them to him. Some purchased statues from closed churches and donated them.

Statue Museum
Interior of the Museum of Divine Saints. Photo courtesy of Lou McClung

To date, he has acquired 68 pieces and restored 20, all life-size, some carved from marble, others of carved linden wood or plaster. He has been able to purchase one of the closed churches, St. Hedwig, formerly a Polish parish in Lakewood. He lives in the former rectory, houses his cosmetics business in the school and uses the church for his nonprofit museum. "We used architectural elements from other churches to restore it to a pre-Vatican II look," McClung said. "We put in stained glass, a communion rail, Gothic arches." The saints, it would seem, are right at home again.

Among their number is a Holy Family grouping, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Therese of the Little Flower, the Holy Child, St. Joan of Arc and four angels. McClung's favorite is the near-life-size marble Crucifixion, which only needed cleaning. It was carved in Italy, he said, and came out of the former St. Lawrence Church. The oldest is St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1855) from St. Ladislaus Church. Former parishioners of those churches will find plaques in front of the statues identifying their original home.

In the beginning, McClung was financing his project out-of-pocket but more recently has been able to grow through the generosity of others interested in saving the saints. He acknowledges the need for more donations and fund raisers and is in the process of forming a board of directors for the not-for-profit museum. There are, for example, the rare statues that he knows are still out there in need of rescuing, like a St. Michael in Pennsylvania and a Guardian Angel in California. He recently acquired St. Florian, minus an arm, in a garage in New York. That one will be restored in honor of Cleveland firefighters and all of the fallen firefighters from 9-11, he said.

The basement of the museum will soon feature a coffee shop, art gallery of pictures from former churches, gift shop and a "memory kiosk" featuring photos and recorded recollections of parishioners of the former parishes. The art exhibit is archival material on loan from J.W. Winterich & Assoc., Inc. a 98-yearold Cleveland company that does church interior design and decoration. Included will be material on the 1940s renovation of St. John the Evangelist Cathedral of Cleveland. John Winterich said he was attracted to working with McClung because "his work is very nice, tastefully done, not gaudy. He is very talented."

The Museum of Divine Statues is open on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment for groups of 20 or more at other times.

McClung, 39, who grew up in Lakewood and graduated from St. Joseph High School in Cleveland, said his Catholic upbringing gave him an affinity for the work he is doing now. He emphasized that the museum is not about "worshipping statues. They are here to hold your focus for prayer and meditation. The more realistic I make them look, the more they honor God and help people pray." He said he researches each saint that he restores.

Asked to explain why he is spending so much time, effort and money on this project, McClung said, " I can't explain it except to say it is a calling. I know it sounds crazy to some people, but I think it is a calling."

The Museum of Divine Statues is located at 12903 Madison Ave., Lakewood, OH. For more information, call 216-228-9950 or log onto museumofdivinestatues.com.

Virginia Mullery is a freelance writer living in North Chicago, IL.


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