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Fil-Canadian artist recreates statue of beloved saint

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John Millar with St. Bernadette’s life-size statue he recreated for St. Malo Shrine. Pilipino Express interview and photos by Lucille Nolasco-Garrido

St. Malo, Manitoba is known for its provincial park, a man-made lake, and year-round activities. But perhaps it is best known for the St. Malo Shrine and Grotto, where thousands of visitors marvel at the picturesque reproduction of the Grotto in Lourdes, France. One of the central figures in this hallowed ground located within a peaceful woodland is a statue of St. Bernadette kneeling in front of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as a lifelike reclining statue of the saint inside the small chapel.

But June of last year, this very statue, which was resting in glass coffin inside the chapel, was stolen. Church officials at the Blessed Margaret Parish hoped to have it found and returned in time for the annual pilgrimage to the grotto, scheduled every August. But despite reporting the incident to the RCMP, no leads as to its whereabouts were received.

Learning about the theft through Facebook postings, a recent fine arts graduate did not think twice to help. He sculpted a replacement.

Pilipino Express spoke with virtual artist and small business-owner, John R. Millar, the day before St. Bernadette’s statue was officially enshrined on Sunday, April 23.

PE: Who commissioned you to recreate a statue of St. Bernadette for St. Malo?

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JM: I heard about the original statue being stolen from the shrine in November of 2022. My church-active friends shared a post made by the Parish of St. Malo’s Facebook account announcing the theft. I offered to make them a new statue, because this kind of religious art is not common in the market anymore. Nobody makes it in Canada. It is made in the style of a mannequin, which is more common in Europe and the Philippines. Given my knowledge and experience in religious art, I thought it would be best if they could get someone local to make it. I charged only for the materials to make the statue – estimated at $500 – because it didn’t feel right to charge them for something that I offered to them. I was thinking more about replacing something that had sentimental value to the community but also to the heritage of Manitoba due to the shrine’s history. The project was officially commissioned by the parish’s board of caretakers that look after the shrine, and it was sponsored by the Manitoba Metís Federation.

PE: Take us through the process of your creation.

JM: I started with sculpting the face and hands in modelling clay, using historical pictures of St. Bernadette and pictures that people have taken of her body, which is preserved and displayed in a crystal coffin at a convent in Nevers, France. That process alone took almost 100 hours. I then moulded it in silicone and had it cast in resin, finished with acrylic paint, and applied animal hair fibres from a brush for the eyelashes and eyebrows. The body has a skeleton made with wood and copper tubing that was cut and put together by my dad. I covered it in spray foam and carved it to create the shape of the limbs, then wrapped in duct tape. The body is dressed in polyester fabric that I altered to match St. Bernadette’s clothes. The statue also has three custom-made pillows made from imported silk brocade fabric. The project took from November to April, but the hours spent on the project totalled up to almost one month. There were a lot of difficulties accomplishing the project because this is my first life-sized work and the first time that I attempted the style of hyper-realism. Getting the facial features correct so that it looks like St. Bernadette’s actual face was painstaking. It was also the first time I used a sewing machine.

PE: What was going through your mind during the process and afterwards?

JM: It was stressful getting it accomplished because I really pushed myself to create this one-of-a-kind piece to restore hope to people who were upset by the theft. The figure of St. Bernadette is also important to the shrine in general because the story of Lourdes revolves around her personal story; the reason the shrine was built in the first place. During the process I had unwavering faith in myself, and it was rewarding when I finally had it finished because it got a lot of attention from the media. Everyone online was very supportive and encouraging of the final product. I was really proud of myself and in a state of disbelief because I never would have imagined that it would turn out as beautiful as it did.

PE: What does this mean to you, as a roman catholic, as an artist

JM: The process of creating it was something I considered a spiritual experience in itself because I had a lot of time to reflect on my spirituality and what kind of inspiration we can take from St. Bernadette’s life. Her life story is about having faith and hope in the midst of suffering even if the world ridicules you. No one is exempt from suffering regardless of their social status or religion, but what matters is how we make use of that suffering to keep pushing forward. I think that idea is something that people can benefit from even from a secular perspective. As an artist this project was my biggest undertaking so far, but also the biggest milestone. The project garnered a lot of interest from the public and I’m happy that I’ve gained the support of so many strangers who are as equally proud of my work as I am.

PE: Are there any statues or creation of yours that are as special as St. Bernadette’s?

JM: A previous work that I consider closely related to this project is a restoration I did for St. Francois Xavier Parish, west of Winnipeg. Several of their statues were vandalized and broken, but I was able to restore one, the statue of Our Lady of Grace. The community in that town was happy to have it back because I believe it was also a donation of the Manitoba Metís Federation over a century ago, so it had historical significance as well.

PE: What are your expectations for the future of this sculpture?

JM: The statue was enshrined on Sunday, April 23rd, where I hope it will rest permanently without ever being stolen. Given the amount of attention by the public and the media towards the project, the shrine caretakers and I are hoping that it will attract an increased number of visitors to this very special place. It is a sanctuary for people from all walks of life and any religion who seek a sense of serenity and healing.

A ceremony will be held on May 31st at St. Malo Shrine and Grotto in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to bless the new statue of St. Bernadette.

Bernadette Soubirous also known as Bernadette of Lourdes, was a French nun who lived in the 1800s. As a young teenager, she had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary in the Massabielle grotto, ultimately leading to the founding of the shrine of Lourdes, France.

St. Bernadette is the patron saint of illness and poverty.

by Lucille Nolasco-Garrido