By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
CHARLESTON An image of Christ watches over those who come in and out of the doors of Our Lady of Mercy Church.
Over the altar, on a wall bare for as long as the resident Franciscan sisters can remember, hangs a beautiful corpus carved from ebony.
It is a dream come true.
Sister Maigread Conway and Sister Colleen Waterman have wished for a crucifix since they came to the parish outreaches in 1968. They would get close to getting one, but it never materialized. Two years ago, the Franciscans contacted their peer, Sister Bernadette Svatos, who was teaching in a Formation House of Prayer in Nairobi, Kenya.
“She said she would do her best, but she didn’t sound hopeful about accomplishing the task,” related Sister Colleen. “There are fewer craftsmen and carvers in Western Africa. Artists are located primarily in Eastern Africa.”
However, Sister Bernadette visited a Jesuit Refugee Center in Nairobi, Kenya, and found they had a shop where refugees who had fled war-torn areas of Africa could sell their products to make a living. She was introduced to a man by the name of Agostino who was sitting outside on a stump, carving. He agreed to take on the project, but large ebony trees are scarce in Nairobi. Agostino had to travel toward Mombasa near Kenya’s southern coast on the Indian Ocean to find just the right piece of the hard black wood.
In 1997, Sister Colleen said they were surprised to receive pictures from Sister Bernadette showing Agostino with the near-finished corpus. They were elated, but had to overcome the next how to get the heavy carving to Charleston.
“Everyone’s hopes were raised when another sister from Africa was going to come to Louisiana to study,” Sister Colleen said. “Sister Bernadette even found a person who could pack the corpus for travel. But it turned out that the sister couldn’t come.”
The work of art had to wait for Sister Bernadette’s return to their motherhouse in Rochester, Minn., a year after it was completed.
Once it made its way to Charleston, the long-awaited ebony corpus had another wait of several weeks until it could be mounted onto a cross. Tony Tuk, a local contractor who helps out at the Neighborhood House, volunteered with his father, Edward, a woodsmith and furniture maker. They began the final stages of making the corpus into a crucifix. After consulting with the sisters, the Tuks mounted the gleaming image of Jesus on a piece of black walnut saved from a family farm in Conway.
The Tuks hung the finished African ebony crucifix in Our Lady of Mercy Church on Jan. 26. Sisters Maigread and Colleen expressed awe about the distinctive face of Jesus.
“The glance penetrates the souls and, in passing, the eyes follow,” Sister Colleen said.
Parishioners were not told about the crucifix. Father Rick Harris was celebrating Mass after it was hung and asked the congregation if they noticed anything different about the church, which, of course, they did.
Benjamin Gethers, an employee at Neighborhood House and a longtime parishioner of Our Lady of Mercy, has been moved by the figure. He dusted the piece and was surprised at how real it seemed.
“It’s just beautiful,” he expressed, “and came from the motherland.”
Vonceil Mitchell was at Mass the first Sunday after it was hung. She saw and heard the appreciation of her fellow parishioners.
“It’s nice to see it when you walk in,” she said.
Indeed, after its long journey, the African ebony corpus has found a welcoming place to rest.
PHOTO: Agostino, the artist, with the ebony corpus.