Making miracles at St. Alphonsus
Frank Methe Photograph
Sometimes it takes a miracle.
No matter where she goes, no matter what projects she undertakes, it seems Covington artist Gianna Salande’s heart from this day forward will forever be linked to a 160-year-old, weather beaten, brown brick church in the Irish Channel.
“This is it,” Salande says about St. Alphonsus Church. “This is where I plan one day to come and never leave. It’s the day I’m looking forward to. I think about it. I dream about it all the time.”
To be sure, Salande’s creative talents run far and wide: acrylics, oils, sculpture (metal and plaster), wildlife photography, taxidermy, restorations … Just when you think you’ve hit the bottom of that cornucopia of talents, she adds, “I also write poetry.”
The old church seemed to be gasping its last when a group of people with preservationist and Irish Channel roots formed the Friends of St. Alphonsus in 1990 to restore cracked plaster and peeling walls and revive the old church to the splendors of its past.
On this day, Salande slides into a pew as the old building cracks and moans under the weight of time and weather.
“Back in 2005 I woke up and I was in another world,” she says. “I didn’t recognize my husband or my children. I had no idea who they were … or where I was. I couldn’t talk. I was having a stroke. Eventually I was taken to Phoenix and a neurosurgeon there who everybody recommended.” She continues, “I had been told I would need what’s called a ‘brain bypass’. They did surgery on me while I was awake and they tested me. I had regressed to a sixth-grade-level in math and English. But my doctor realized that I had all the blood vessels and neuro-connections and that this bypass procedure would not be necessary. In essence, my brain could rewire itself.
“I knew it would be a long process, but I was so thankful. It was a miracle. It couldn’t have been anything else,” she says. “It was all part of a journey that eventually bring me into this building. My husband had left me, but then I met Matthew, the man who is now my fiancé. One day, Matt and I were at St. Mary’s Church (St. Mary’s Assumption) across the street. When we left he said he wanted to show me something in this church so we walked over. As soon as I walked through the doors, I knew this was special. I knew that statue in the back of the church, was special! It was like the reason I was meant to be here. Matt knew it was special also. I knew it would play a major role in the rest of my life.”
That statue was of the “reclining Jesus.”
Just as the elements had wreaked havoc with St. Alphonsus Church, so, too, did it nearly destroy the popular statue.
“Parts of the statue were missing,” Salande says. “Fingers were missing; it was eaten up by mold and was on the verge of being ‘recycled’ … that’s a term we use when a religious artifact is so damaged, artists take the pieces apart and they keep the strongest pieces so they can mark them and possibly use them in the future on a project that may need whatever is missing.”
But Salande says, “I couldn’t let that happen. I was drawn to that statue.”
She offered herself to the board of the Friends of St. Alphonsus, as a volunteer to “bring the statue back to life,” as one St. Alphonsus worker put it.
“You come to a statue with this much damage, and you can’t just go in and slap plaster on it and paint over it. People rub their hands on the statue. They hug it … in the meantime mold is again forming on the inside. I knew this had to be a special restoration.”
So special that Salande invented her own custom gel to protect the statue against damage from the climate and adoring hands.
“I’ve worked on this statue alone for one solid year,” she says. “I come from across the lake three days a week. Through all this time I’ve been thoroughly vetted by the Friends, letters of recommendation, you name it. They’ve named me ‘artist in residence,’” she continues. “I’m so thankful for that. Because now every time I walk through those doors in the back, I feel like I’ve arrived. When I leave to go back across the lake I feel like I’m leaving a place where I really belong.”
Salande has three children; the youngest of which is 13. She says, when he’s ready to “leave the nest,” she and Matt, her woodworking artist fiancé, will pack up their belongings on the north shore and move to the Irish Channel – and to St. Alphonsus.
“I pray for that day,” she says. “I almost can’t wait. It’s like I was meant to be in this church for the rest of my life using all of my talents and all of my energy to bring it back to where it once was.”
As she walks through the quiet building that has come to life with a knot of tourists in the back asking questions of a volunteer, she points to this statue of St. Ann that “is really in bad shape and needs work.” And “that statue of St. Jude is covered with powder and needs work. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
She jokingly says she’d like to ask Matt to build a loft up near the choir section so, “We’d never have to leave.”
She gives a last “safety tug” to scaffolding that has been set up for her to do work near the entrance.
A group of volunteers is explaining the history of the church to the visitors from out of town when one of the women breaks away from the group and wanders over to the reclining Jesus.
She slowly reaches up to touch the statue, but pulls back.
A volunteer says, “Go ahead! Touch it! It won’t break.”
The visitor is captivated by the photos on the wall of the broken, rotted statue. She shakes her head in disbelief. Then she views the renovated icon – and finally touches it.
“This is an absolute miracle,” the woman says.
Gianna Salande smiles and nods.
“That’s exactly how I feel,” she says. “A miracle. It can’t be anything else.”