Last month at a Mass for St. Patrick's Day, the Archdiocese of New York unveiled a sculpture of Saint Josephine Bakhita entitled "Let the Oppressed Go Free." Saint Josephine Bakhita is the patron of human trafficking victims. The Sculpture was made by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz renowned for his powerful and thought-provoking sculptures that address social issues. Schmalz is inspired by his devotion to Jesus' message of love and compassion. Displays of his work have brought his visual message across the globe, with his "Homeless Jesus" being displayed in many churches and places worldwide, including St. Peter's Basilica.
Check below our short film on the ceremony of the blessing by Nicolas Rossier and Ian DiSalvo
His Eminence, Timothy Cardinal Dolan blessed the statue that will now be displayed permanently at St.Patrick's Cathedral. Father Enrique Salvo, Rector of St. Patrick's Cathedral, hopes that the statue will serve as a reminder of the ongoing struggle against human trafficking and inspire people to take action to prevent this crime. Each year, millions of children, women, and men are trafficked in the United States and worldwide. The United States Department of State estimates that there are 27.6 million victims worldwide at any given time. Traffickers prey on people of all nationalities, ages, and backgrounds. According to the United Nations, about 50% of victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 40% are exploited for forced labor. One in every three victims happens to be a child.
I caught up with sculptor Timothy Schmalz after the ceremony.
How do you feel after this blessing by Cardinal Dolan?
It's amazing to have the sculpture finally blessed and installed in St. Patrick's Cathedral. One of the great cathedrals, perhaps not only of America but the world. And the number of people. It's just unbelievable. And this is precisely the ideal location for such an important message on human trafficking to get out there. People in New York, the Cathedral, St. Patrick's Cathedral is their oasis. They come there for meditation, prayer, and silence. And for them to see such a message, to see such a powerful, much-needed call, a visual call to action, hopefully, will turn into a physical call where people will be doing things with that awareness that that sculpture gives them to help make change within this world as far as human trafficking is concerned.
Is there a special meaning that this statue is first unveiled in New York City ?
The sculpture shows people coming out from under the ground. Well, look at this city. There's another city, an underground New York City of people that are completely oppressed. I think it's very powerful in such a spiritual center of New York City. When I was requested by the Vatican, specifically Cardinal Czerny, to come up with a design to help create awareness of human trafficking in the world. Well, the added ingredient is New York City to fulfill that, and because the awareness that that site will bring to the sculpture is just phenomenal. Yes, and here we are going to the other cathedral in New York City, St. John the Divine, where I have had my "Homeless Jesus" installed there for a couple of years. And that, again, is another much-needed message that sacredness is to be found within all humanity. And what I love about "the Homeless Jesus" at the other cathedral, the Episcopal Cathedral, is that there's a balance now created of two urgent messages in New York City that are perpetually being proclaimed. The one that there are people that are oppressed today. There are slaves today. The other is that all human life is sacred. And so the two pieces go hand in hand. Humanity is sacred, and we have to take care of it. We cannot abuse people, and we must do our best to nurture and care for all humanity. And with my life as an artist, I'm doing my part. I just talked to a couple whose family members were on the frontline working, stopping, physically stopping, and arresting traffickers. And that's unbelievably noble. Not everyone can do that. We all have our own abilities, but if we can use our abilities and our life just a bit to help others, I think that that's good enough, in a sense. One of my favorite quotes is by Oscar Wilde. Interesting, an Irish poet coming on St. Patrick's Day. But Oscar Wilde wrote an essay called "The Decay of Lying," and it was all about the value and the power of artwork. And he mentioned in it that the people in London didn't see the fog until the painters started painting it. And it really touches on the idea that art has a special quality, a special feature, a special power in our culture. It brings attention to things in a way that only art can do.
In a sense, it crystallizes something, a subject matter, or something. What I like to think is that if you have a famous historian or a politician, they might get an honorary doctorate, and they might get awards. But if someone creates a sculpture or bust of them, then they're there, right? This statue is about a heavy subject. And you look at a lot of churches and cathedrals, and you think, "Yeah, you're going to see a bunch of cherub cheek charmers when you go in the church." But this brings something really shocking into this cathedral. And it's something that I think is that people have to come face to face with. People have to come face to face with evil. And only then, after you acknowledge it, can something be done about it.
Sculptor Timothy Schmalz next to his statue of "The Homeless Jesus" in front of St. John the Divine. (c) Agoras Media
Do you think there's a new awareness in the church about themes like human trafficking and human rights? Do you think it's surprising to have it in the cathedral or not?
I think that what's happening with the Catholic Church right now is there's kind of new awareness. I think a lot of times, and I think you see this within the artwork, its emphasis is oftentimes on the comforting. And that's fine. Visually, you see a lot of comfortable artwork. I have no problem with that. I love doing it. But it's only one side of Christianity. Christianity is a challenge. It's often a slap in the face. And to perpetually have these visual ambassadors that are all just comfort and just about beauty creates a distorted picture of what Christianity really is. And if you look at the lives of the saints, most of them had brutal, brutal lives, right? All you have to do is take a survey of probably the top hundred saints, and you'll realize that their lives were not cookies and cream. And it's interesting because the term we use, "Oh, you're living a life like a saint." Right? Well, you think about most of the saints, and most of their lives ended by murder. They were murdered. They were butchered and tortured, and they had tortured souls, a lot of them, right? But I think that, in a sense, over the centuries, just like a pebble in the ocean, it'll get worn down and worn down. A lot of these saints, in their artistic representation, have been worn down to a kind of pleasant nub. And I think that the purpose of the artist today is to redefine those sharp edges. And so they'll bite people like the scripture does, like the early Christians, like all the saints. They have messages that I think are very, very relevant to people today. The suffering that they have, the horrors in their life. But they have to be told properly; they have to be told authentically. And so it doesn't surprise me right now that St. John the Divine Cathedral installed "Homeless Jesus", a sculpture that takes, and it kind of distills the idea of how Jesus wanted to be represented himself. He wanted to be represented with the marginalized, the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked. He didn't want to be represented with the kings and queens. And this sculpture is an accurate representation of that. The piece in St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Bakhita, was a slave. She was tortured, and to have that representation in St. Patrick's Cathedral is, in a sense, a very authentic symbol or artistic representation of Christianity. One could argue that Christianity is no longer as prevalent as it was 50 years ago. And so what it has to do now is that it has to work harder. It has to be more challenging, and it has to be more sincere because it's no longer omnipresent in our culture. And so, it's more of a challenge now. So to put symbols out there or art out there that reflects that is absolutely necessary.
Is that your motivation as a sculptor? Was this the beginning of your quest as a sculptor?
Well, my motivation as a Catholic sculptor or a Christian sculptor is to branch off of my faith as a Christian. I will only do sculpture because I'm a Christian. I have no interest in doing art otherwise. I started as a sculptor, and then I had an artistic conversion when I was around 20. I've been doing artwork ever since I was like 16, 15, obsessively. But it was when I was 20 that I started sculpting using my faith as Christian only.