PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When Father Christopher Heanue became rector of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in the Diocese of Brooklyn, he set out to make it a magnet for the arts. To that end, the parish has hosted several concerts.
But he noted that the church, which was dedicated 111 years ago, has only one statue of its patron, and it’s atop the “baldacchino” — the canopy above the altar.
So Father Heanue turned to sculptor Christopher Alles to create a life-size sculpture that parishioners could appreciate at eye level.
It’s not easy depicting St. Joseph, whether with paint, stained glass, or bronze.
Jesus’ stepfather is not quoted in Scripture, so his personality can’t be gauged based on anything he said. Rather, it’s the actions of this humble carpenter that tell his story.
But that can be an advantage, said Alles, who specializes in art for sacred places. He has already completed two pieces of the saint for St. Joseph’s Parish in Somers, New York, a town in northern Westchester County.
Soon the Hudson Valley-based artist will begin work on a commissioned life-sized sculpture for the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Prospect Heights.
The theme requested by Father Heanue is “Fatherhood of St. Joseph.”
Diocesan Children Join Cause
An art contest with the same theme for youth in the diocese is underway, with over 825 entries received, to help drum up excitement for the new sculpture, Father Heanue said.
It is sponsored by the co-cathedral, The Tablet, and the Archbishop John Hughes Knights of Columbus Council.
Alles, 32, said the absence of quotes attributed to St. Joseph makes him “a bit of a mystery.”
“But his silence is very powerful in the fact that he was obedient to God, and he was faithful,” Alles said. “When an angel came to him in a dream and told him to go to Egypt, he did so immediately.
“That’s pretty shocking,” Alles said. “The amount of faith to not even question, not even wait around, but to just go. It’s truly why I think he’s the greatest saint besides the Blessed Mother.
“His silence speaks volumes.”
A Vessel for Spiritual Life
Alles currently works in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he and his wife, Emma, are raising a toddler son and infant triplet daughters.
The sculptor grew up in Portland, Oregon, where his artistic parents and siblings belonged to Holy Rosary Parish. His mother taught piano and sang in the church choir. So did he and a brother. In this setting, Alles discovered the confluence of artistic beauty and spirituality.
“One of the great things about that parish, growing up, is there was a lot of beauty associated with it,” he said. “Besides good art, there was good music. And that can become a vessel or a way to express your spiritual life.
“The more beautiful it is, the easier it is to pray. That’s just how my experience has been.”
Alles and his siblings pored through the many art history books in their home. They became avid drawers, but Alles discovered sculpture as the further development of images began on paper.
He attended college for a year but dropped out in 2012 to start formal classical-art training in Florence, Italy. There, he worked with Irish sculptor Dony MacManus on a massive 16-figure altar relief for a medical school chapel in Rome. Alles followed with an apprenticeship under Polish sculptor Tomasz Misztal. He also completed a master class in drawing with Vitaly Borovic, head of drawing at the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“I was fortunate,” he said. “Luckily, God placed these people in my life. They were quite talented and amazing and, probably, above par more than anyone in the schools — I would say true masters.”
His portfolio grew, and he secured a residency in Manhattan at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture — the venue of visual and performing arts for the Archdiocese of New York.
“This was an opportunity to develop and build my portfolio,” he said of the year-long residency.
The Sheen Center is now home to two significant pieces by Alles. One depicts social justice activist Dorothy Day, a candidate for sainthood. The other is a bust of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the center’s namesake.
Alles became friends with Father Heanue, who, at that time, was a deacon in residence at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Astoria. The artist attended Mass regularly at the parish.
“I followed Chris’ trajectory as an artist for a few years now,” Father Heanue said. “He did some great work at the Sheen Center for the archdiocese. He is a very dedicated Catholic man and a great artist.”
A Grander Composition
Alles said he will collaborate with Father Heanue and the parish council to develop ideas for “Fatherhood of St. Joseph.” He knows that he can’t reproduce the work he did for the parish in Westchester County.
One is a depiction of Mary and an adult Jesus consoling Joseph on his deathbed. The other shows Joseph guiding Jesus, a boy, in the operation of carpentry tools.
“Of course, there’s a temptation to just do the same thing again, but obviously, I can’t do that,” Alles said. “I think it’s good because it forces me to take a look at the same subject all over again.”
Alles is sure, however, that Jesus will be a part of the new sculpture.
“We’re sort of in the early stages,” he said. “We don’t know how old Jesus will be — if he’ll be young or if he’ll be a teenager. But I think it will be a grander composition because this is for a cathedral.”