NEW YORK (PIX11) — It’s a quiet, stone-lined grotto with a life-size image of the Virgin Mary.
Facing the Madonna is a waist-high image of three children and two sheep. The smaller icons are made of carved concrete and painted in gleaming white.
They look brand new, despite being about a century old. The story behind their glow is actually one of tragedy, which ultimately became one of triumph. The grotto and shrine, next to Our Lady of Sorrows Church, on Stanton Street between Ridge and Pitt Streets on the far Lower East Side, is surrounded by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire.
One night in mid-May of last year, somebody scaled the fence and the wire, climbed into the shrine area, and destroyed the statues.
Jackie Bisono, a parishioner at Our Lady of Sorrows, saw the destroyed monuments the morning after the severe vandalism. The heads, limbs, and extremities of the icons were detached, and the torsos had been knocked over.
“It was so upsetting,” said Bisono, who’s worshipped at the church since she was nine years old. She also now works as an office manager at Our Lady of Sorrows.
She said that she’d called a friend, who’s also a longstanding parishioner, and they decided they needed to take action.
“You’re the one who we called,” she said, about their decision to contact PIX11 News about the desecration and vandalism. She said that the decision by PIX11 News to cover the story had an impact.
“The cardinal came!” she exclaimed. “That really made a big difference.”
Watching the coverage on PIX11 News last year was Paul Maiorana, a graphic designer and owner of a t-shirt printing business on Staten Island. He said that the story compelled him to act.
“I reached out to Channel 11, [and they] gave me Father McNamara’s phone number,” he said, referring to the pastor of the parish, Father Tom McNamara, whom Maiorana called.
“I said, ‘Listen, I think I can fix this thing. I’m pretty good at it.'”
Fr. McNamara said that the call was miraculous.
“Who’d believe there was a way to put these back together?” he said in an interview at the shrine. “I thought it was kind of a lost cause,” he said. “It made me ask, does anyone else care?”
He said that a lot of people showed they cared, after the media coverage of the crime. Paul Maiorana showed his care directly, said Father Tom.
Maiorana has been a sculptor since he was 15 years old, when a local artisan in Brooklyn, where he’d lived at the time, gave him training, free of charge. Decades later, Maiorana lives and works on Staten Island, where his t-shirt printing business is located, and where he has a studio where he can make and repair sculptures.
It’s where Father Tom brought the badly damaged religious sculptures.
“They were in a million pieces,” Maiorana said. “I got it together, I reinforced them with steel, and I called the father and said, ‘Come pick ’em up.'”
Maiorana understated how laborious and strenuous that process was. It took months of work to reconstitute the sculptures, which are so heavy that it takes two or three people to lift and move them.
Now, the works of art are back in their home, at the shrine, facing the Our Lady of Fatima, which is inside the grotto. The Madonna artwork had never been damaged, but now, all of the depictions of catholic iconography are secured tightly to the cement below with deep screws.
Just as they’d been a year ago, the images are serving their purpose as part of a place for people to find comfort and inspiration in their community. Maiorana credits the lessons that his sculpture instructor, named Dominic, gave him decades ago.
“I used that gift to help others,” Maiorana said, adding that having the shrine intact again is as heartening for him as it is for the neighborhood it serves. “It’s going to help their mental health to see that there, and pray and cry, and whatever it is you want to do,” he said. “That’s payment enough.”
Maiorana did all of the work free of charge.
Jackie Bisono, the parishioner and office manager, said that she’s grateful in many ways, including to PIX11 News for first providing coverage.
“It could have been another story, and you guys responded,” she said. “I thank you for that.”
The parish filed a police report after the vandalism, but there have been no arrests. Still, said Father Tom, the whole thing has left him and his congregation grateful, despite their initial hurt and sorrow.
“People do reach out,” the Capuchin friar said while standing in the shrine next to his parish. “It does give me great cause for hope.”
The statues will be rededicated in a prayer service in front of the grotto and shrine at 11:00 a.m. on Saturday. The church said that people of all faiths, or no faith, are welcome to attend.