Pauline Winogron working on the restoration of a crucifix. Photo by Steve Winogron

Faithful make new connection with statues, restorers finding

  • September 17, 2016

OTTAWA – An Ottawa couple has discovered a calling restoring and re-painting religious statues, as they have found that the veneration of statues is “making a comeback” after falling into disuse in the years after Vatican II.

“Even regular people are either buying new statues or they’re inheriting statues from churches or convents that have closed down,” said Pauline Winogron, 51, who works with her husband Steve, 55. “We’ve noticed in general people have a lot more devotion and connection to statuary. It is just plaster, but there’s that connection to what it represents.”

Steve said a statue helps people to visualize the saint whom they are venerating or Christ whom they are worshipping.

“People are not only praying, but putting their hands on the feet of the crucifix,” he said. “It helps them to make the connection.”

After the Second Vatican Council, many colourful statues were whitewashed or removed altogether from churches, Pauline said. Murals were painted over. While some churches, such as Ottawa’s two basilicas, never removed their statues, many parishes did. Now even the most modern-looking parishes are bringing them back, she said.

“There’s a lot of hope,” said Pauline. “It’s nice to see the really beautiful richness coming back.”

She noted people can go into a shop to buy a statue but they are not as well-crafted as the older ones.

While the resurgence is real, Steve pointed out that in places like Quebec, especially, “the Church is shrinking, in trouble.” He said many respond to the challenge by insisting, “My faith matters to me and I’m going to stand up for it because it’s a big part of my life.”

“We help those kinds of people who are looking to physically see, touch or hold onto an aid in strengthening their devotions,” he said.

Pauline, who comes from a family of 11 children, has been involved in restoration work for more than 30 years. The self-taught artist, who began as a portrait painter, said she is among those in her family who received the “art gene.”

Her foray into restoration work began with a request from Fr. Bob Bedard, the founder of the Companions of the Cross, who had just taken over the parish she attended. Bedard asked her if she would restore a life-sized crucifix he had inherited.

“I was terrified, of course, but I said, ‘Sure!’ ”

Thirty years later, Pauline had the privilege of restoring the same crucifix again. It still hangs in St. Mary’s parish.

Bedard also asked Pauline, who was then in her late teens, to design the logo for the new priestly order he founded, a logo still used by the Companions.

Though Pauline continued to receive requests to do restoration work over the years, Steve pursued a 35-year career in the news business that included years as news director at a popular Ottawa radio station. In November 2014, his news career came to a halt after a restructuring.

“For 35 years, I was in the turmoil of the news business,” he said. It was a life of “constant stress” and pressure, juggling staff, equipment resources and “the constant worry about staying on top of everything.”

Even vacations were no escape. He always had a cell phone or a pager with him. He knew he did not want to return to that kind of high stress work. Steve discovered his calling when he started to work on some of the broken statues Pauline had lying around. He studied what he could and worked on fixing statues until he mastered the technique.

“We have a poor St. James at home who was almost decapitated,” Steve said. “It’s a big project.”

In the winter, he works inside his home; in the summer he has converted part of his garage into a workshop.

“People come by and ask what I’m doing,” he said. “You’re out with the birds and chipmunks on a beautiful warm day. It’s so calm and peaceful, I love it.”

On recent weekday evenings, the Winogrons have been repainting the Stations of the Cross at St. Patrick’s Basilica when the building is closed.

“Before we work on any significant project, we pray for help that we do it right, that what’s in our heart we’ll be able to recreate,” said Steve.

He recalled a story of an Italian woman who took it upon herself to repaint a fresco of Jesus and ruined His face. The photos went around the world.

“It’s not like fixing a flat tire on a car,” he said. “We take it seriously.

“I love being able to say this was broken and now it’s not, or this was out of use because it was so badly damaged and now it’s going to go back into being on display and used in peoples’ devotions,” he said.

The Winogrons have visited the cathedral in Montreal where the basement stores religious objects that are no longer used in churches or convents that have closed or undergone renovations.

“It’s a massive place, filled with statues, many with breaks and chips,” Steve said. “We’ve noticed some things are gone now. That means some church or order has taken them out and put them out into service.”

To buy a statue, like the one of St. Hedwig the couple is working on for St. Hedwig’s parish in Barry’s Bay, Ont., would cost thousands of dollars. It weighs about 100 kg.

“These are not things you can pop in trunk and do on kitchen table,” he said.

They also received a request to work on a nativity set where the Baby Jesus had a broken arm, one of the cows was missing an ear and a shepherd’s hand was broken so he could not hold his staff, Steve said. The church wanted to install the nativity scene the following day, so Steve fixed the statues all day and evening. Pauline stayed up all night repainting them. The scene was installed at noon the next day.

“We get a lot of repeat customers,” said Pauline, and positive word of mouth brings them still more.

The Winogrons expect the business to continue to grow.

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