PROSPECT HEIGHTS — The Diocese of Brooklyn on Tuesday, Dec. 8 swapped this year’s pandemic darkness with 14,000 dazzling Christmas tree lights, and the presentation of a sculpture honoring all refugees from the mosaic of human history.
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, joined by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, unveiled the sculpture, “Angels Unawares,” and then flipped the switch on the 35-foot tree beneath the iconic Soldiers and Sailors Arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza.
The 3.8-ton sculpture — 20 feet long and 12 feet high — is a reproduction of the original “Angels Unawares” by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. That piece was permanently dedicated by Pope Francis to mark the 105th World Day of Refugees and Migrants, September 2019 in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square.
Bishop DiMarzio, who has spent his career championing for refugees and immigrants, reflected on how the sculpture complements the history of Brooklyn and Queens. The Catholic diocese serving those boroughs has long been known as the “Diocese of Immigrants.”
“This is truly an impressive mosaic of people,” Bishop DiMarzio said of the 140 characters depicted in the sculpture, including the Holy Family — Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
“To unveil this before us recognizes what this is about,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “It is a symbol of what we want to be, and what we have been in the past, and what the future holds for us if we hold to our values as Americans.
“This has truly been a land where everyone has a stake.”
Bishop DiMarzio added that the COVID-19 pandemic has been brutal and tragic, but people in the diocese responded courageously.
“I think this time of COVID has brought us closer together, recognizing that we are interdependent on one another,” the bishop said. “We depend on one another for many things, and this has helped us perhaps come closer together at a time when there’s always division. But unity is so much more important.”
Mayor de Blasio agreed.
“Bishop DiMarzio said it right,” the mayor said. “This is really important to say at the outset: all the people who have been fed, all the people who’ve got face coverings, all the folks who are helped in the middle of this crisis — the diocese of Brooklyn was there for them.
“Bishop DiMarzio and his whole team really provided tremendous comfort for people in need.
“Look, I just want to say to everyone in this season, we have many faiths in New York City, but our faiths consistently tell us to look out for one another.”
De Blasio praised the sculpture, and said he was moved by its backstory.
“It recognizes the goodness in all of us,” he said. “The angels walk among us.”
“Angels Unawares” draws its title from Hebrews 13:2. In that scripture, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Pope Frances commissioned Schmalz to create a work of art that depicts immigrants and refugees throughout human history.
In a Dec. 7 interview with The Tablet and Currents News, the sculptor said this piece is an appropriate Nativity scene. He explained the characters crowded on a refugee boat include an angel, with wings stretched to heaven, and the Holy Family shown fleeing to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod.
Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, who helped bring the sculpture’s duplicate to Brooklyn, noted how the joy of Jesus’ humble birth in a stable is contrasted by the family’s subsequent escape to Egypt.
“You see,” said Msgr. Gigantiello, “people love to see a Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus with the sheep and the animals. (But) we forget that when everything is over, the Holy Family flees as well.
“This sculpture reminds all of us that Jesus, Mary and Joseph, (are) refugees, migrants, just like all of us in the boat of life together on a journey.”
Msgr. Gigantiello is diocese vicar for development. His special assistant, John L. Heyer II, said after the ceremony that Schmalz contacted the diocese to request that the sculpture’s duplicate appear in Brooklyn during its national tour.
The request came shortly after the commissioning of a statue honoring St. Mother Cabrini, another champion for immigrants, in the Battery Park City neighborhood of Lower Manhattan.
“Mr. Schmalz’s desire for the sculpture to be placed in Brooklyn during its national tour was directly connected to our international recognition as the Diocese of Immigrants,” Heyer said.
The bronze duplicate has already made stops in San Antonio, South Bend, Ind., and Boston College. It will be on display at Grand Army Plaza until Jan. 3. After the tour, it will be permanently installed at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Msgr. Gigantiello thanked Heyer and others who helped make the Brooklyn appearance happen. Included are Nick Barone and Barone Steel Fabrications and Mario Macaluso Construction who helped install the massive piece of art.
Financial support came from the Catholic Foundation of Brooklyn and Queens and Hildamarie and Alexander Ladouceur, Msgr. Gigantiello said.
He added that topping the list is Bishop DiMarzio, “who has lived a life in service to immigrants and refugees.”
“It is most fitting,” the monsignor said, “that this sculpture will be unveiled by him here tonight, the culmination of over 50 years of hard work and welcoming the stranger among us.”