BROOKLYN, New York — The diocese of immigrants is temporarily the home of a sculpture depicting the movement of migrants.
“Angels Unawares,” a replica of the artwork that sits in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, was unveiled Dec. 8 by Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and placed in front of the diocese’s public Christmas tree at Grand Army Plaza.
The sculpture sits in place of the traditional Nativity creche in front of the historic Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. The 35-foot tree is adorned with 14,000 lights, making an impressive site in the middle of Brooklyn’s busiest traffic circle.
The artwork was designed by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz and depicts a raft packed with more than 140 migrants and refugees representing the diverse waves of immigration through history.
There are Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, a Polish woman running from the communist regime, a Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, an Irish boy escaping the potato famine, and the Holy Family of Nazareth. St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants and best known as Mother Cabrini, also is depicted in the sculpture.
Angel wings are visible at the center, a symbol of the sacredness of the migrant and refugee.
The 20-foot-long, 12-foot-high, 3.8-ton reproduction has arrived in Brooklyn as part of its tour of the United States. The bronze artwork has made stops in San Antonio and South Bend, Indiana, and at Boston College. It will be on display at Grand Army Plaza until Jan. 3 and will be permanently installed next year at The Catholic University of America in Washington.
It takes its title from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
DiMarzio, an international expert on migration policy, called it “a symbol of what we want to be, what we have been in the past and what the future holds for us if we hold to our values as Americans.”
“This has truly been a land where everyone has a stake, where everyone can have a place in this great country,” added the bishop.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who assisted with the unveiling, said the statue recognizes “the goodness in all of us, the angels, the people who do good among us.”
“That’s been the New York story for generations,” he said. “We celebrate that story with this sculpture.”
While thanking the bishop for bringing the display to Brooklyn, de Blasio also praised the work the diocese has done during the COVID 19 pandemic, especially the distribution of food to the hungry by Catholic Charities.
“Bishop DiMarzio said it right,” the mayor said. “This is really important to say at the outset: all the people who have been fed, all the people who’ve got face coverings, all the folks who are helped in the middle of this crisis — the Diocese of Brooklyn was there for them.”
“Bishop DiMarzio and his whole team really provided tremendous comfort for people in need.”
DiMarzio added that he felt “this time of COVID has brought us closer together, recognizing that we are all interdependent on each other.”
The visit of the artwork was made possible by generous donations from Hildamarie and Alexander Ladouceur, the Catholic Foundation of Brooklyn and Queens, and the DeSales Media Group. The unveiling was shown live on NET-TV, the 24-hour Brooklyn diocesan cable network.
Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, vicar for development, said the sculpture represents a fitting tribute to Bishop DiMarzio’s 50-year ministry to migrants and refugees.
“People love to see a Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus with the sheep and the animals. (But) we forget that when everything is over, the Holy Family flees as well,” said Gigantiello. “This sculpture reminds all of us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph (are) refugees, migrants, just like all of us in the boat of life together on a journey.”
He said it signifies “the story of Brooklyn and Queens, of our ancestors, of all who have passed through Ellis Island, the story of all those who have passed over our borders for a better life than the one they left behind.”
Wilkinson is editor emeritus of The Tablet, newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn.