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Sculpting Our Founder

Posted on April 11, 2024 in: General News

Sculpting Our Founder

An interview with artist Chas Fagan about the creative vision of his new statue of Blessed Michael McGivney



“When I paint or sculpt a figure, I always feel like I get to know them,” says artist Chas Fagan. “It’s like adding one more person to the long list of your lifelong friends.”

By that measure, Fagan has gotten to know Blessed Michael McGivney well over the last several years. In 2016, the North Carolina-based artist painted what would later become Father McGivney’s official beatification portrait. This past year, he completed a second likeness of the Knights of Columbus founder: a marble statue that has been installed in the Hall of American Saints at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

The Knights of Columbus previously commissioned Fagan to sculpt two statues of Pope John Paul II for the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington and to paint the canonization portrait of St. Teresa of Calcutta.

Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly and Father McGivney’s great-grandnephew, John Walshe, unveiled the new statue Dec. 8 at a dedication ceremony presided over by Cardinal Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States. Fagan, who was also present, spoke with Columbia about Father McGivney and what he hoped to convey about the parish priest with his work.

COLUMBIA: How familiar were you with Blessed Michael McGivney before creating this statue?

CHAS FAGAN: I was quite familiar with him already, having painted his portrait in 2016. Yet I feel I met him a long time ago, back in the ’80s — not his 1880s, but my 1980s, in New Haven, Connecticut.

As a sophomore at Yale, in New Haven, I had a serious medical incident that kept me trapped in the hospital for over three months. When I was finally allowed to leave, I stepped out the door and just randomly took a left turn down Hillhouse Avenue. I walked down the street, enjoying the nature and birds, a reminder that I was still alive. Then I saw an old church. In that moment, I was probably thinking that a church was a good place to go, so I walked in.

It was empty. I just genuflected and found a spot toward the back. As I’m doing that, I hear a voice. And the voice welcomes me — by name. I look up, and there’s a priest up there by the altar, and he walks by. And that’s it.

I’m left sitting there, kind of shocked and amazed, but also a little freaked out. I had never been there, yet he knew my name. Then I started thinking, “Well, maybe he found out about my situation or something, because it’s a small community in New Haven.” In the end, all I do know is what I felt — a sense of absolute welcome. And that experience completely anchored me from then on.

That church on Hillhouse became my home. For the rest of my time at college I went to church there. I grabbed all my buddies and that’s where we went on Sundays. And that church is St. Mary’s Church, which was Father McGivney’s parish. But I only learned that way late in the game — I had no idea at the time.

COLUMBIA: How did you eventually learn about Father McGivney?

CHAS FAGAN: Before I started my first project for the Knights of Columbus, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson gave me Father McGivney’s biography to read. You can imagine how I jumped when I realized, fairly early on in that book, “Oh my goodness, St. Mary’s — my St. Mary’s — was Father McGivney’s home!”

So what I never realized as a college kid is that I had received the lasting embrace of Father McGivney and his parish. That is why it means so much to me to work with the Knights of Columbus and to tell the story of Father McGivney, whether it be in paint or clay or bronze or marble. He was a man of dedication and a classic, caring parish priest. More than that, he was a can-doer, a man of action, something we can all aspire to.

COLUMBIA: How did you approach the task of depicting Blessed Michael McGivney in marble?

CHAS FAGAN: Father McGivney accomplished a lot in 38 years, and he had a great impact, obviously; you don’t do that by being a recluse or being quiet. It takes a special man to do that. That’s what I always saw in him and what I really wanted to portray — that ability to get things done.

So having a stiff, heavy, vertical figure standing in stone just wouldn’t fit. I really could not imagine creating a piece that was totally static, immobile, with no action to it. I wanted the opposite — I wanted to infuse it with movement, energy. And so he’s turning and presenting a book of Scripture etched with “Unity” and “Charity,” the Order’s great founding principles. He is also leaning forward slightly, as if he’s about to take a step, and the action is accented by the lines of his cassock. The confluence of folds reveals motion. The way that cassocks were cut at the time, if you move and twist a little bit, you can get some beautiful curves just in the fall of the drape; you get these great angled slopes of line and shadow. That motion gives the statue energy, so that if you walk around it a little bit, you capture glimpses of the dynamism of Father McGivney’s life. That is the vision of what I wanted, and we got it.

At the same time, I was trying to capture his likeness as accurately as I can. With Father McGivney, not that many photos are extant — only a few black-and-white seated portraits. We only have a few views that are solid, where you can see the full shape of his face. So there was a lot of unknown. I just had to guess. And with sculpture, you’ve got to guess a lot more than you do with a painting. With a painting, you can capture a view of a person and know that you’re pretty accurate. In this case, we didn’t have a profile image to know the true shape of his nose or even the profile of his head. So I had to make some educated guesses based on the images we do have.

COLUMBIA: What was it like to see your statue unveiled at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception?

CHAS FAGAN: I was not present to see the statue installed at the basilica. I got snapshots and then official photographs, but I had a hard time recognizing the details of the sculpture. And when I did get there ahead of the ceremony, everything was so sealed and covered up that there was no physical way for me to peek.

So at this particular unveiling, it meant that I was a guy waiting in anticipation just like everyone else to see what it looked like — to see how the marble’s final surface treatment had come out, to see how the statue looked under the lighting. Lighting will change everything. But I loved how it looked and the way it fit with the architecture. It really worked out beautifully.

It’s always wonderful to see and hear people’s reactions too. I think the most moving part for me was when John Walshe pulled me aside and said he had a hard time looking at the sculpture. This was very curious, and I wanted to know more. The reason, he said, was that he saw his family in the sculpture’s face — all the family faces were in there. I thought, “Well, that’s good. We hit the target.” That was wonderful.