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By Valerie Faciane
New Orleans — It’s been nearly two years since the statue of St.
Gabriel last stood at the main entrance of St. Gabriel the Archangel
Catholic Church. Six feet of water poured into the church after
Hurricane Katrina, toppling the statue and ruining the walls, pews,
altar, piano and organ, in addition to the church office and rectory.
Ever since the church reopened three months after Katrina hit,
parishioners have been sitting on folding chairs; a covered table serves
as the altar.
The only thing missing was the hand-carved statue of the church’s
patron saint.
Now, after an interfaith restoration effort that took the 5
1/2-foot-tall statue to Philadelphia and back again, St. Gabriel has
returned to Gabriel’s. Some say he looks better than before, and
symbolizes the hope that their lives, community and city will be rebuilt
even better than before the storm.
The parish welcomed the statue back on Sunday (Aug. 5) in a nearly
two-hour Mass. The statue stood on its brand new cypress pedestal, next
to the makeshift altar.
“The statue is obviously symbolic of our parish,” said the Rev.
Douglas Doussan. “We’re named after the Archangel Gabriel. The
restoration of the statue is symbolic of the restoration of people’s
homes, people’s lives, restoration of our parish and restoration of our
city.”
But this is no ordinary statue.
“These strangers just dedicated themselves to bringing it back,”
said parishioner Belinda Rodgers.
The Philadelphia-based Interfaith Community Building Group, which
was formed in 1996 in response to a spree of black church fires across
the South, not only restored the statue but also rebuilt the back wall
of the damaged church building.
The first church the group helped rebuild was in Rocky Mount, Miss.
“We thought this was going to be a one-time effort,” said ICBG
member Frank Hollick, who returned to New Orleans for the rededication
Mass. “Well lo and behold, here we are 11 years later.”
With him were fellow parishioner Dale Mezzacappa, along with Peter
Handler and Carol Towarnicky from Philadelphia’s Mishkan Shalom
Synagogue.
“The interfaith element of this group has become so important to all
of us,” Hollick said, “because what it makes us realize is that there
are a lot more similarities in different faith communities than there
are differences.”
It took the expertise of Handler, a furniture craftsman; Joe
Brenman, a sculptor; Leon Zakurdayev, a Russian-born wood carver; Philip
Housner, a wood turner; Joe Winter, a sculptor; and his wife, Kathy, a
painter, to put St. Gabriel’s statue back together.
The ICBG members first came to New Orleans a year ago to help
renovate the church and parishioners’ homes. At the time, Handler and
Brenman were able to restore minor fractures in a statue of Mary on
site.
But the statue of St. Gabriel was so heavily damaged that they asked
Doussan, the parish priest, to ship it to Philadelphia for restoration.
The statue was packed in separate pieces for transportation; all but the
wings arrived at their destination.
Handler knew that Zakurdayev, the woodcarver, was the best person to
re-create the wings, but the only point of reference he had was a
picture.
Handler said the picture was taken before the statue was shipped
off, “of me holding up one wing, Joe (Brenman) holding another wing and
Doug (Doussan) standing behind.”
Using the picture, Zakurdayev and the others were able to
extrapolate the dimensions and re-create the wings.
“He is one of the best in the world in what he does,” Handler said
of Zakurdayev. “He carved every feather in the wings.”
Fifteen-year-old Mia Malone, who is blind, ran her fingers across
the etchings on the wings as her father, Daryl, stood by her side.
“It’s beautiful,” Mia said.

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