Chiseling, talking to St. John Paul, one-on-one

They called it a monumental journey, and with good reason.

At 2,700 pounds, St. John Paul II has put on a little weight since his historic visit to New Orleans in 1987, but he returned with a Florentine flourish outside St. Louis Cathedral last Sunday, flashing his warm smile and tender gaze, silent but profound gifts to the City of New Orleans on the occasion of its 300th birthday.

The Carrara marble statue of St. John Paul II was fashioned by Italian-born sculptor Franco Alessandrini, a New Orleanian for 50 years now, and commissioned by the American Italian Cultural Center. The statue of the pope rests a few paces from the front door of the cathedral, where Pope John Paul II waved to the crowds before entering to speak to hundreds of clergy and religious inside.

The statue, which was blessed by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square in November, emerged in three months within Alessandrini’s Italian studio from an 8,000-pound block of white Carrara marble. There were times Alessandrini was unsure if he could meet his deadline, which is when he tried to focus on the eyes he was creating.

“I was there when John Paul came in 1987, and I was like one of the crowd,” Alessandrini said. “So, then, I found myself sculpting him and being able to talk to him while I was sculpting him. I was kind of feeling like it was one-on-one. Instead of being so far away, I was right there, talking to him.”

As the days approached for the statue to be finished so that it could be taken to the Vatican for the papal blessing, Alessandrini looked down at his calendar and then continued to look up at St. John Paul’s face.

“The most challenging point is when I was working on the portrait of John Paul II, trying to get the similarity and mostly the feeling and expression that he used to have,” Alessandrini said. “There’s a smile, a very pleasant smile. Everybody loved him because of the kind of feeling he would transmit to people. That is why I put two young people around him. He was the pope of children and young people.”

An artist can’t be rushed, but the clock never stopped moving. Alessandrini kept talking to his friend, often into the early morning.

“Sometimes, if you let what you’re doing transport you, you get the inspiration,” Alessandrini said. “John Paul had a force in the sense that people didn’t have to talk to him. He looked at you, and you could feel, behind the man, there was a spiritual force.”

Alessandrini never complained to the pope that he needed to work overtime to get the job done.

“The pope was a man of work, too, you know,” Alessandrini said. “He worked in the mines. He did a lot of physical labor, so I know he understood me. He broke his shoulder one time working. He had a lot of experience with physical work, so that was a good relationship for me while I was working physically on him. We were one-on-one, and it was good.”

Frank Maselli, chairman of the American Italian Cultural Center who sang in the 200-member choir at the  outdoor papal Mass at UNO in 1987, said the statue’s trip to the Vatican for Pope Francis’ blessing on Nov. 15 came with a few surprises.

“They told us they were going to put the statue to the left and in the back of St. Peter’s Basilica,” Maselli said. “Then, the next day, the statue got there two hours early, and we weren’t around. The Vatican people somehow told them to drive the statue to the front and stick it right in front of the basilica. It worked out perfectly. We were on the 50-yard line.”

After Pope Francis’ general audience, he walked over to the statue and gave it his blessing. The pope could be seen remarking that he loved Pope John Paul’s face, the face Alessandrini had created.

Alessandrini was too far away to greet the pope, but he soaked in his gesture of artistic approval.

“You could see him say, ‘I like the smile,’” Alessandrini said. “He was really excited about the statue. When he was leaving, he kind of patted it on the arm. That made me feel really good. It was wonderful. This is why you do what you do, to hear people say, ‘I like what you did.’ That’s what your reward is, more than the money or other stuff.”

Baggage claim: Can you find  a ton-and-a-half statue?

The statue still had to make the final leg to New Orleans, which became the mother of all airline lost-luggage stories. Carefully crated, the statue was flown from Pisa, Italy, to London, where it went nonstop to New Orleans on British Airways.

But when the plane landed in New Orleans on Dec. 26, workers could not open the cargo hold. Because the British Airways flight had to make a quick turnaround back to London, Pope John Paul flew back across the Atlantic with 250 passengers.

“I think he got like 18,000 frequent flyer miles,” Maselli said.

The statue returned two days later, the cargo door magically opened, and St. John Paul II was placed on his pedestal in front of the cathedral on Jan. 4. It’s not going anywhere for a century or three.

Maselli is doing a documentary on the saga. “‘A Monumental Journey’ is what we’re calling it,” he said. “The pope went across the ocean twice before he came here. I was never nervous, but now I can breathe.”

Alessandrini says he will enjoy being anonymous, walking with his wife Margaret as they stop in front of the St. John Paul II statue and watch people say a prayer or take a picture.

“I don’t want anybody to know who I am,” Alessandrini said. “I will get to see somebody taking pictures of themselves or selfies with the kids, sometimes one after the other. And then I get to walk away.”

Just maybe, a set of eyes will follow him.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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