WASHINGTON, D.C. — A monumental work of art depicting migrants and refugees seeking a home has found its own permanent home at a new plaza at The Catholic University of America.
During an April 22 blessing and dedication ceremony, Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory blessed Timothy Schmalz’s “Angels Unawares” sculpture and philanthropist and arts patron Jacqueline Mars pushed a button that initiated water flowing around the base of the sculpture to form a reflecting pool.
The sculpture depicts 140 diverse migrants and refugees from different countries and historical eras huddled together on a boat as if seeking a safe harbor, with the flowing water in the reflecting pool seeming to represent the tides carrying the boat’s occupants toward a new life.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” said Mars, who made a gift of $1.25 million for the plaza. In a ceremony before the blessing, she said, “I believe that this statue so personifies exactly what we should be doing, welcoming the stranger.”
The co-owner of Mars, the world’s largest candy company, said the sculpture reflected how the United States was founded by immigrants, and she also said it was very meaningful to her that the refugees in the artwork included the Holy Family, shown on their flight into Egypt with Joseph holding carpentry tools and Mary cradling the baby Jesus in her arms.
Noting the sculpture and plaza’s location, surrounded by the Catholic University campus and with the nearby Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception forming a majestic backdrop, Mars said: “I chose to support Welcome Plaza because I felt this location was a place where the statue could speak to a variety of people: young and old, from this country and elsewhere.”
“To experience ‘Angels Unawares’ in person is an important lesson for all of us,” she said.
The 20-foot-long, 3.5-ton bronze sculpture is the second casting of that artwork by Schmalz, with the originally commissioned by the Vatican and placed in St. Peter’s Square, where it was unveiled by Pope Francis in September 2019 for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
One year later, the second sculpture was blessed by then-Archbishop Gregory at Catholic University, before it traveled on a 9,700-mile tour across the country.
“Nineteen months later, the sculpture has finally arrived in port, and we have settled the matter of where to dock it,” said Catholic University president John Garvey at the dedication ceremony.
A stone marker identifies Welcome Plaza and the “Angels Unawares” sculpture and includes the biblical quote from Hebrews 13:2 that inspired the work: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
To reinforce that spiritual message of welcoming newcomers, large angel wings stretch skyward in the middle of the figures standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the boat.
In his opening prayer at the gathering, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio to the United States, noted that these are “dramatic days, when so many of our brothers and sisters are forced from their homes” by war and domestic strife.
“Most of all, oh Lord, we ask you to send your holy angels to comfort the migrants and refugees, the marginalized and the despondent and those who care for them,” he prayed.
The artist also addressed the guests and said viewing the sculpture brought him a flashback of the faces he used as models for the work. The Canadian artist said some, including African refugees, posed for him in his studio, while many of the historical figures were based on photos from the archives of Ellis Island.
The figures in the sculpture represent a range of ages, ethnic backgrounds and emotions. Most look forward, and some look back.
The figures in the front of the sculpture include a Muslim woman fleeing Syria, a Jewish man holding suitcases while escaping Nazi Germany, a pregnant woman from Poland and an Irish boy leaving home during the potato famine. In the back is the figure of a Cherokee man with his hand clutching his face in sorrow as he is forced from his tribe’s lands during the “Trail of Tears.”
“I hope when people look at it, they will see themselves within it,” said Schmalz.
The interfaith ceremony also included remarks by an Episcopal priest, a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi, who all spoke of how welcoming strangers is a central tenet to their faiths.
In an interview, the artist said that the “Angels Unawares” in this setting celebrates the story of immigrants in America. And he noted that with this casting of the sculpture, the figures in the boat are able to be surrounded by water, which couldn’t be done in St. Peter’s Square.
Mars said she “felt strongly about the water element and that the statue should be floating as on a boat. When you think of all the immigrants and the images we see of many of them crossing at sea to escape, it just seemed appropriate to have that water element in the plaza, too.”
“I truly hope ‘Angels Unawares’ will move people to a generosity of spirit toward immigrants,” she said.
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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard newspaper of the archdiocese of Washington.