By JEFF DILLON
Two angels that have had a very secluded existence for well over 50 years have been released from their confinement in a small room at the third level of the north tower of St Joseph’s Cathedral in Dunedin. However, there is a slight problem in that they have lost their wings.
The angels were originally situated on either side of the high altar in the cathedral, but became a casualty of changes prompted by Vatican II in the 1960s. At some point, they ended up in a skip destined for the dump. However, either some members of the cathedral choir or people from the neighbouring Catholic high school rescued them, and they were secreted away in their lofty lodgings in the tower.
The beautiful high altar, designed by the Cathedral architect, Francis W. Petre, also became a casualty of changes to the sanctuary after Vatican II, and was removed to the former Dunedin Art Gallery at Logan Park at the time. It was rescued and saved by some parishioners from an intended dumping in the harbour and returned to its place in the cathedral as a decorative item in April, 1996.
Fr Vaughan Leslie was appointed parish priest of the Cathedral at the beginning of 2023 and found the angels on an exploration of his new domain. He mentioned their existence to some others, and an idea developed to return them to their former role. However, besides being without their wings, they had also sustained other damage and needed some repairs.
He approached Bishop Michael Dooley with the idea of returning the angel figures to the sanctuary. “Bishop Michael was very enthusiastic,” noted Fr Leslie, who also suggested that the Blessed Sacrament could be returned to the tabernacle in the high altar and the angels could then resume their role of “guardians”. Again, he noted the support of Bishop Dooley for the return of the Blessed Sacrament to the high altar as “the Blessed Sacrament would be front and centre in the cathedral, and I made the point that, in the time when belief in the Real Presence is at an all-time low, we need to have Christ right there in the middle.”
Fr Leslie obtained a quote from Damien Walker of the Studio of St Philomena in Rangiora, and sought approval from the parish finance committee to launch an appeal for donations to meet the projected cost of $22,298 (ex GST). Those funds would cover the restoration of the two angels ($13,000), the manufacture of four wings ($6678), purchase of two electric torches ($920) and the making of two large white dry mix concrete pedestals ($1700). The finance committee was very supportive of the idea, and even before the appeal was made public donations began to come in from some people who had heard that it was going to happen.
The public appeal for donations at the beginning of July began with a solid base of financial support already provided, and further donations flowed in over the weeks that followed from a cross section of parishioners. By the end of August, Fr Leslie was able to announce that the target had been exceeded, but that the additional funds would be used to cover the $1600 cost of material purchased to make veils for the tabernacle and altar and lectern frontals. The ecclesiastical fabric and church gallon are being sourced from Ukraine. Fr Leslie happens to know a good sewer (himself) and Bishop Dooley, who worked as a metal worker before heading to the seminary, will make the metal rods for the tabernacle veil.
The angels themselves were originally crafted by the Mattei Bros, an Italian family company based in Melbourne. Their company, which started in the late 1800s, quickly became known for creating statues that adorned many churches in both Australia and New Zealand. In 2019, Damien Walker acquired the entire collection of moulds after Joseph Giansiracusa, the previous owner, sadly passed away, and the Melbourne company closed down. However, the moulds for the wings of the cathedral angels were no longer available. Fortunately, Mr Walker has been able to borrow wings from an Australian church and will fashion moulds from them.
The statues, made of plaster, are hollow and stand around 1.5m tall. However, with the wings attached, they’ll reach close to 2m. They will stand on the concrete pedestals, and will be freshly painted after being stripped of the damaged original finish. The torches the angels will be holding have been sourced directly from Italy. They will be replica torches with three candelabra each lit with LED lights.
Getting the angels down from their lofty location was a mission in itself. They were wrapped to protect them, and several helpers managed to lower them down from the choir loft and into the back of Fr Leslie’s car. As he drove them north to Rangiora, Fr Leslie hoped that he would not be stopped at a Police checkpoint as the apparent appearance of mummified bodies might have provoked their interest.
It is intended to have the angels in place and return the Blessed Sacrament to the tabernacle in the high altar at the 10.30am Mass on November 19 this year.