MILL BASIN — Jimmy Wagner was eager to find a way to pay tribute to his late grandparents, James and Mary, who both passed away last year and were an inspiration to him because of their commitment to living out their Catholic faith every day of their lives.
He found a way that is not only a lasting tribute to them but is a gift to the church where their son, his uncle, Christopher Wagner, serves as a deacon.
Several months ago, Jimmy Wagner, a lawyer, donated money to St. Bernard Clairvaux Church in Mill Basin and told the pastor, Msgr. Joseph Grimaldi, to use it as the church saw fit. The parish chose to commission a statue of the Holy Family.
“Everything we do in my family, starting with my grandparents, who are Uncle Chris’s mom and dad, has always been about the Catholic Church. It’s all about the glory of God,” Wagner explained.
Bishop Robert Brennan came to St. Bernard to bless and dedicate the new statue at 11:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, Oct. 2 — which was also Respect Life Sunday and featured Communion and Confirmation candidates leading the procession into the church, carrying a banner praising the Holy Family and Respect Life.
The statue, which depicts the Baby Jesus cradled in his mother Mary’s loving arms as Joseph protects them, stands outside the entrance to the church, welcoming all to come inside and worship. The six-foot-tall statue was constructed in Italy and shipped to the U.S. in time for it to be installed on Sunday.
The statue is part of a shrine that includes a wall containing hearts engraved with the names of parishioners’ deceased family members. Msgr. Grimaldi said the shrine is meant as a place for parishioners to stop, pray and offer petitions for their loved ones.
Wagner, while not a parishioner of St. Bernard — he attends St. Patrick Church in Bay Ridge — was on hand for the Mass to see the statue his generosity made possible officially dedicated.
Wagner said he had a financially successful 2021, which allowed him to make the donation.
“I happened to have had a very good year. It’s feast or famine in the type of work I do,” he said. “Some years, it’s very good. Other years, you’re cutting back.”
He came to the Mass with his wife Jillian and their three children and looked on with pride as Bishop Brennan blessed the statue. The artwork “exceeded all of my expectations,” he said, marveling at its beauty.
“It’s a gorgeous statue. Every day I try to become closer to my faith, and I just thank God he gave me the opportunity to do that,” he added.
The statue is also spawning a new movement within St. Bernard.
The parish plans to establish a Holy Family Society, and parishioners will be asked to sign up. The members would pledge to engage in such practices as praying the rosary together with their families once a week.
According to Msgr. Grimaldi, the idea is to “strengthen family bonds, strengthen mutual respect in families between parents and children.”
The statue’s placement outside the church is important, according to Bishop Brennan, as it serves as a “very visible reminder. As you go down the street or approach the church, you can’t miss it.”
“We look at the family, and we look at the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and are reminded of the importance of family life in the United States and right here in Brooklyn,” Bishop Brennan said. “We all need to be able to look to them and try to encourage families living the challenges of daily life together.”
It was a happy coincidence that led Bishop Brennan to St. Bernard on Sunday. Several months ago, Msgr. Grimaldi, who is also the vicar general for the Diocese of Brooklyn, was planning the statue dedication and was chatting with Bishop Brennan. He remarked that Oct. 2 is Respect Life Sunday and offered on the spot to come to St. Bernard.
“Obviously, the Mass is around that theme of respecting life and the sanctity of the family and all that ties in very beautifully,” Msgr. Grimaldi explained. “It just kind of came together as both a parish and diocesan event.”
After receiving the donation, Msgr. Grimaldi and parish leaders brainstormed to figure out what to do with the money. The pastor mentioned that it would be good to find a way to incorporate the donation with the idea of strengthening the family, and the idea for the statue was born.
Rita Damato, the parish’s director of development, said the statue reflects the reality of the parish, adding, “We have a lot of young families here. It’s nice to acknowledge the family and give them a place to pray.”
And she said the fact that the artwork depicts Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is fitting since “the Holy Family was the first family.”