Excerpts from "Carl Demma's Mighty Metal Madonna" by Tori Marlan
The idea took root when he was a boy. The details--that it would stand over 33 feet high, weigh 8,400 pounds, take 15 years to finish, and cost him half a million dollars--came later.
God didn't suddenly appear to Carl one day and command him to commission a colossal Madonna. It was just something he knew he had to do and had known, deep inside, for most of his life.
One day, when he was nine, he got permission to skip school so he could accompany priests from his parish to a bank downtown. The priests asked him to wait in the car while they deposited collection money, but the car grew oppressively hot, and Carl stepped outside. Looking up at the skyline, he became transfixed by a large statue crowning the Board of Trade building. When the priests returned and asked what had captured his attention, he said the Blessed Mother and pointed to the statue.
|31 ft statue of Ceres on top of Chicago Board of Trade Building|
The priests corrected him. He was looking at a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. "I was all huffy, thinking they were playing a joke on me or something," Carl recalled nearly 60 years later on the radio program Voices That Listen. "I says, 'You sure that isn't the Blessed Mother?'"
Then it dawned on him: If a giant statue of Mary didn't already exist for all of Chicago to enjoy, he would see to it that one was built.
Others might outgrow their childhood fantasies, but not Carl. He held onto his dream, though for a while it was eclipsed by other, more mundane ambitions.
Then in May of 1983, Carl came across the embodiment of his childhood vision. A 32-foot stainless steel statue of Mary stopped at Quigley Preparatory Seminary South for ten days while en route from the artist's studio in Delaware to a parish in Santa Clara, California. Technically, the statue was homeless. The diocese of San Jose had yet to finish preparing the plot of land designated for the statue--a spot overlooking Highway 101--so it went on an accidental three-city tour.
Carl took [his daughter] Judi to see it. It was as tall as a three-story building. This is what daddy is meant to do, he told her. This is what God wants from me. "She says, 'Aw, dad, please,'" he told Voices That Listen. "'I says, 'Jude, it's gotta be that way.'"
When Carl was 51 commissioning a giant Madonna seemed no less feasible than it had when he was a child.
Carl was a good, generous man, says [his wife] Fran, as religious as they come. He attended mass every day, she says, "even on vacation if he had to take a cab." He didn't feel right if a day began without receiving the Lord. For many years, that meant rising at or before the crack of dawn to attend a 6 AM mass; after he retired the 8:30 mass sufficed.
Despite his clerical connections and commendable intentions, Carl couldn't drum up any support for his statue from the archdiocese. In fact, the local clergy adamantly opposed his plans. In the years since Vatican II, the church had scaled back on lavish construction projects and grand artistic flourishes. Churches were generally smaller, more simply constructed now, and money was thought to be more wisely spent on infrastructure--electricity and heating, for example--and teachers' salaries. A colossal statue of Mary simply wasn't a priority.
Bishop Alfred Abramowicz tried a different tack to discourage Carl, pointing out that Carl didn't have that kind of money to spend. The bishop warned about the steep cost of such a creation. He had helped arrange for the 32-foot Madonna to stop at Quigley. His parish, Five Holy Martyrs, was located only a few blocks east of Carl's store. When the pope had visited Five Holy Martyrs a few years earlier, in 1979, Carl had done the bishop a favor by letting the parish use his parking lot. Now Carl wanted a favor from the bishop. Just tell me how to get in touch with the sculptor, he said.
"We talked for a few minutes," recalls the sculptor, Charles Cropper Parks, who specializes in figurative bronze and stainless steel sculptures. "And the next thing I knew, he arrived in Wilmington." To his dismay, Carl could not immediately persuade the Delaware sculptor to get cracking on another Virgin Mary, so he took up the matter with his patron saint at Wilmington's Saint Anthony of Padua Church. "I'm hollering at Anthony," he recalled during the Voices That Listen interview. "I'm saying, who put this thought in my mind, why can't I do it, give me a chance, let me try, I know I can fulfill this dream that I have. And a priest pops up behind the sacristan, and he says, 'Who ya talking to?'"
Carl asked the priest, Roberto Balducelli, whether he thought a large statue of Mary was something from which people might derive religious inspiration. "I said yes," recalls Balducelli. "I believe works of art are necessary for the human spirit." Like the bishop, however, Balducelli doubted Carl's ability to follow through with such an ambitious project. "He didn't give you the impression of a man who could afford something like that. He wore ordinary clothes, looked like a workingman. I said, 'It's going to cost a fortune.' He said, 'I can find the money. I can raise the money.'"
Balducelli asked Carl some questions--had he talked to the bishop? did he have a place for the statue?--to determine whether Carl had thought through his plans or whether "he was a lunatic." To Balducelli's surprise, "He started making sense." Balducelli happened to know Parks, and he contacted the sculptor on Carl's behalf. Balducelli recalls, "I said, to me, the man is serious."
Parks said he could make the statue for half a million dollars. Carl didn't have the money, but somehow he persuaded Parks he'd get it, and Parks finally agreed to work with him. Carl gave the sculptor full artistic control, but they talked at length about Carl's vision and why he was determined to bring the Madonna to Chicago.
Parks got the impression that Carl thought the church was drifting too far into secularism, that children were no longer being brought up to revere Mary, and that what she represented was lost on the younger generations. Our society honored war heroes, athletes, and politicians with statues, and while they might be worthy, Carl thought no one was as deserving as Mary. He also believed that the best way to reach people raised in a visual culture would be through a powerful image.
Though he's not Catholic, Parks was moved by Carl's piety, and he set out to make the statue "worthy of that kind of devotion."
Fran wasn't overjoyed when Carl told her about his project, but unlike his clerical friends, she says, she never tried to discourage him. She did, however, ask whether he would consider building a smaller statue. No, Carl told her, he would not.
Carl believed in a correlation between size and impact. The bigger the rendering of Mary, the better the impact. That 5,000 people had come to see and pray before the Madonna at Quigley was, he figured, a direct consequence of its hugeness.
People who didn't know Carl well questioned his motives. Some wondered whether he planned to erect the statue in front of his store to attract business. Others, says Peter Liberti, just "thought he was crazy."
The biggest obstacle at first was the money. But then, for a while, the statue seemed to fade in importance to Carl. In 1986, a couple of years into the project, the Demmas' second daughter, 24-year-old Judi, died from the same blood disorder that had taken the life of her sister 20 years earlier.
"It got to a certain point, I didn't hear from him for six years," says Parks. "I had written him off."
Fran, too, privately wondered whether the statue would ever be completed. "For a while there, people would ask me, 'What's going on with the statue?' There were so many things that were going on in our life, and I would just say it was in limbo."
Carl's close friend Carmen recalls his frustration: "He would go, 'Mannaggia, that guy upstairs, you don't know what he puts me through. You don't know what he puts me through. But I gotta do it. I gotta do it.'"
"Regardless of what was going to come his way, he said that he was going to accomplish this before he died," recalls Lisa Fragale. "He would say, 'For every day that I'm on this earth, I haven't finished what God wanted me to do.'"
Carl's grandmother had told him that if you appealed to Saint Anthony on his feast day, he wouldn't let you down. So in June of 1994, "I went right to his church in Padua, Italy," Carl told Voices That Listen, "and I'm raving like a maniac again--in front of his entombment--and I say, 'Hey, show me the way.'"
Anthony answered, but it wasn't the answer Carl wanted to hear. "He heard a voice within himself telling him to sell his business," says Fran. "And this was very difficult to him. This was an enterprise he worked hard for for 35 years." The Brighton Park store was also their cushion for retirement. Carl promised Fran they'd be OK, and Fran trusted Carl to know such things, so Carl set about trying to find a buyer. In 1997, after six years of silence, Parks picked up his telephone and heard Carl on the other end, saying, "Charles, I'm ready to go."
Carl had sold Liquorama and was about to pour the proceeds into his dream.
In 1998, Bishop Abramowicz arranged for the Demmas to attend a small, private mass in Rome with Pope John Paul II. After the service, Carl pulled out a brochure he'd had printed up and roped the pontiff into a discussion about the statue. Fran says Carl asked the pope if he would bless the Madonna when it was completed, and the pope agreed, as long as Carl could get it to Saint Peter's Square. Carl later looked into transportation possibilities but found the cost of hauling four tons of stainless steel overseas outrageously--and prohibitively--expensive.
A short while later, Fran heard that the pope would be visiting Saint Louis in January of 1999. "That's when Carl started rolling," she says, "telling the sculptor to get that statue ready."
Word of the giant Madonna spread through Wilmington, and soon Parks and his assistant found themselves welding for an audience. Each day, more and more people came to watch. Johnston dispatched his shop's security guards to control the crowds. Toward the end, Parks says, about 900 pilgrims a week were flocking to the shop to glimpse the statue. Some of them had stories. It had rained once when Parks wasn't around, someone told him, and no one in the crowd got wet. Parks had heard similar claims--miraculous and otherwise--about his first colossal Madonna. He had displayed it in Wilmington's Rodney Square for a few months before the ACLU objected and he sent it on its meandering trek to California. Later, he heard that it had slashed the crime rate in half in that area of downtown. "Not because of divine intervention," he says, but because people--potential witnesses--were always around.
Parks completed Carl's statue on January 18, 1999--15 years after he'd begun. Because of a miscalculation on one of the enlargements, it wound up being 33 feet, 8 inches, a foot and eight inches taller than the first Madonna.
Its magnitude is overwhelming. Mary's hands are nearly clasped in prayer, her facial expression serene. Light reflects off the welded ribbons of stainless steel that form the robe and hooded cape and shines through their gaps, lending the statue an otherworldly refulgence. Fran says that when Carl laid eyes upon the completed Madonna for the first time, he was filled with an indescribable joy.
Parks says, "He had tears in his eyes and just said 'Thanks.'"
In Saint Louis a few days later, Carl scoured the pope's planned parade route for a location for the statue. The businesses lining the route turned him away, one after the other. "We rode up and down for a good six hours, eight hours, trying to find a place," Johnston recalls. "Demma had no permit, and the diocese wouldn't help him out." Carl finally tracked down the owner of a vacant lot and got permission to erect the statue on it. He then hired a sign company with a crane to lift it off Johnston's trailer. The Demmas reported the statue's location to the Saint Louis police department, as required. Fran says Carl proudly showed detectives his brochure while she joked around with them. "I kept saying, 'You think you have something with that arch, wait till you see what we have.'"
On January 26, the pope cruised by the statue, encased in his bulletproof popemobile. It didn't matter to Carl that he didn't get out. The pontiff had looked up at the massive Madonna and made the sign of the cross.
With the pope's blessing, the remarkable reception in Wilmington, and the approach of the Jubilee Year--during which the church would celebrate the beginning of the third millennium since the birth of Jesus--the archdiocese of Chicago finally embraced Carl's statue project. It assigned someone in its Millennium Office to help the Demmas coordinate a touring schedule and agreed to host the statue--renamed Our Lady of the New Millennium--at Holy Name Cathedral on Mother's Day. The archdiocese's support, however, was conditional: Carl had to provide insurance in case of any accidents.
After the Mother's Day appearance at Holy Name Cathedral, at which Cardinal George blessed the statue, Chicago area parishes lined up to host Our Lady of the New Millennium in their courtyards and parking lots. They held special prayer services outside in front of the statue and saw their congregations swell during its weeklong visits. "It is impossible to measure the amount of good and the abundance of grace that has flowed into people's lives because of the statue," Father Joe Linster wrote in Saint Patrick's newsletter after his parish hosted the statue. "We praise the Lord for Carl and Francine Demma."
At each stop, Carl traversed the crowd, passing out plastic prayer cards bearing a photo of the statue and small "miraculous medals" showing Mary with outstretched arms. Parishioners poured out their woes, not only in front of the statue but in front of the Demmas as well. They said they had cancer or a debilitating disease; someone they loved had just undergone surgery or suffered a stroke. "In the beginning both of us were feeling very down to hear these stories," says Fran. "Sometimes that was a little hard to deal with." But then the Demmas began to hear about answered prayers and improved lives, and again Carl said he had done the right thing.
"I saw him one day at a neighboring parish," says Father Markus. "He said, 'Oh, Father, you wouldn't believe how the statue has changed people--more than I ever could have imagined. People come up to me and tell me things that I don't even want to hear, that I don't want to know--what they've done in their life. But they come and say, I'm changed.'"
Wherever it goes, Our Lady of the New Millennium attracts a steady stream of worshipers and passersby. It inspires an odd mix of prayer and commerce, spirituality and tourism. Vendors hawk religious trinkets: crucifixes, rosary beads, prayer cards. Parishes sell tall votive candles with the statue's likeness printed on glass holders. A shrine invariably springs up around the statue. Visitors leave bouquets, burn candles, write petitions, kneel, cross themselves, snap photos, shoot video, stuff donation boxes, and kiss their fingers and touch the statue's toes. And someone in every crowd, it seems, boasts about having some connection--no matter how tenuous--to the man who made it all possible.
Fran keeps a memory book of its first year. The pages, decorated with drawings around the borders, contain photos and a narrative of the statue's travels. Now she will always remember that at Sacred Heart in Palos Hills they said the rosary in 19 languages, that at Saint Patrick's in Saint Charles friends donated flowers and palm fronds to surround the statue, and that the mayor's parish in Bridgeport, Nativity of Our Lord, hosted the statue on the anniversary of the first Mayor Daley's death. And then there was that rainy day at the Demmas' own parish, Saint Germaine's in Oak Lawn. The sky was starting to clear up, and Fran overheard someone mention a rainbow. "I thought, oh God, now they're seeing rainbows," she recalls. Nevertheless, she stepped out from under a canopy to investigate and, to her delight, saw a rainbow centered right over the statue. "That was really like a message of God being pleased with this, and I don't talk like that usually," she says.
Carl Demma passed away on Sunday June 25, 2000 from a heart attack at age 69. The day before he died Chicago Catholics celebrated a huge outdoor "Field of Faith" Millennium Mass at Soldier Field which was attended by over 30,000 worshippers. Carl was there with Our Lady of the Millennium where she greeted the faithful as they entered the stadium for the Mass.
After more than a decade visiting parishes in the Chicago area, Our Lady of the Millennium will move to a permanent home just 50 miles outside of Chicago at the Shrine of Christ's Passion in St. John, Indiana.
Prayer for Our Lady of the Millennium
By Pope John Paul II
Mother of the Redeemer,
with great joy we call you blessed.
In order to carry out His plan of salvation,
God the Father chose you before the creation of the world.
You believed in His love and obeyed His word.
The Son of God desired you for His Mother
when He became man to save the human race.
You received Him with ready obedience and undivided heart.
The Holy Spirit loved you as His mystical spouse
and filled you with singular gifts.
You allowed yourself to be led
by His hidden powerful action.
On the eve of the third Christian Millennium,
we entrust to you the Church
which acknowledges you and invokes you as Mother.
To you, Mother of human family and of the nations,
we confidently entrust the whole humanity,
with its hopes and fears.
Do no let it lack the light of true wisdom.
Guide its steps in the ways of peace.
Enable all to meet Christ,
the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Sustain us, O Virgin Mary, on our journey of faith
and obtain for us the grace of eternal salvation.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Mother of God
and our Mother, Mary!