Fr. Dunstan Massey and his nearly-complete bas-relief of Christ's burial. Photo by Agnieszka Krawczynski

Prayer and work: Benedictine monk creates sculptures depicting Christ's life

By  Agnieszka Krawczynski
  • October 16, 2017
MISSION, B.C. – The 93-year-old hands of Fr. Dunstan Massey are carefully filling in the imperfections of what will soon be his newest art piece at Westminster Abbey in Mission.

He spends about four hours a day in a barn downhill from the stunning abbey church in the Fraser Valley working on the sculpture, a bas-relief of the Burial of Christ.

“The work is a prayer,” he said inside a studio filled with drawings, plaster moulds and buckets of materials. “Ora et Labora. That’s what the Rule talks about: prayer and work. The two go together.”

An accomplished artist since the age of 16, when he had a one-man show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Massey gave up a promising professional career to enter the Abbey at age 18. He was prepared to give up art altogether, but the Abbot wouldn’t allow it.

Since 1982 he has created 22 concrete bas-reliefs for the Abbey, including 20 for the church. His talent and endurance have brought him local celebrity. He calls it a privilege for one artist to craft all the artwork for a single church.

“An artist doesn’t very often get a chance to do the whole ornamentation of a church. That’s a rare thing. It’s a privilege to be able to do that.”

Massey has created depictions of holy people from Abraham to the Apostles. His works include a kneeling Angel Gabriel, the founder of the Benedictine order St. Benedict, and even a hard-working St. Peter with a miraculous catch of fish.

Each of his bas-reliefs hang on the concrete pillars of the church, looking almost as if they were built right into the wall. He began by creating concrete statues of saints, angels and popes, but felt something was missing: a focus on Christ.

So the Benedictine monk spent seven years crafting a crucifix that now hangs above the altar. It was cast in bronze, plated with silver, and hung in 2014. After that intense project, with the help of some young novices, he started his 23rd concrete statue: Joseph of Arimathea carrying Christ to the tomb.

“I wanted to bring in two more aspects of Christ’s mission: His burial and His resurrection,” said Massey.

The statue is destined for the church’s east end. “From the nave, you will see Christ on the cross, and you’ll see the death and Resurrection. It gives a Christological meaning of why all the saints are there.”

The cheerful monk said that in his younger years it took about three months to create a concrete relief. His latest work has taken about two years. “It’s very easy to make a drawing. It’s very hard to produce a sculpture.”

For the burial scene, as with every sculpture, Massey began by drawing out his designs and creating a life-size clay model. He then covered it in plaster of Paris, making a negative mould.

In time, and with the help of novices, he removed the clay and poured cement into the mould. The cement was left to cure for a few weeks, then the monks removed the plaster and touched up the statue.

Massey said in the process, the statue has deviated slightly from his original drawings — for the better. Mary and John have gone from mere observers to an essential part of the scene.

“Mary managed to stand for three hours under the cross on which her son was dying. It’s my private idea that, after an ordeal like that, she probably would be suffering a considerable effect of shock,” said Massey.

“So I have portrayed her: her eyes are not focused, her hand is reaching out towards Jesus but it’s limp and her posture is beginning to lose its balance. John, appointed by Jesus at the crucifixion to be her son, puts his hand on her arm to steady her.”

Meanwhile, Massey depicts Christ as deceased but hiding the “great big secret” of Easter on His peaceful face as Joseph of Arimathea and a servant carry His body to the borrowed tomb.

Benedictine Br. Joseph Bruneau said the incredible artwork inside the church shows the strength of the whole Abbey community.

“As the young ones are helping Fr. Dunstan now, we’re hearing stories from the older monks who say, ‘we remember doing St. Benedict with him.’ There are all these crews of people who have worked together. Everyone has done something. The art is here because there is a community.”

Bruneau was recently tasked with replacing the stained-glass domes on the Abbey church roof. They were originally installed in 1981, but within two years, the colourful domes were leaking and an exterior dome was installed to keep the church dry. Then, by 2012 the thick pieces of glass, fastened 18 metres above the altar with epoxy, began falling out.

“They came to me and said: ‘I want you to take that out as fast as you can,’ ” said Bruneau. Enlisting the help and imagination of brother monks, he chipped away at the domes and cleared out the stained glass within two weeks.

For the next few years, the Benedictines celebrated Mass under a plexiglass dome while they tried to come up with a safer way to install stained-glass roofing. Armed with new ideas and plans, they began installing the glass (including some pieces of the original roof) in 2015, and the final pieces were in by Easter 2017.

“Pretty much everyone who has entered the community since this has been a project has worked on this, sometimes for hours,” said Bruneau. “Many members of the community who didn’t work on it, really worked on it by filling in where we should have been. That’s the thing that’s little appreciated about the art: it’s only here because there’s a community here.”

Now, the brightly coloured stained glass throws shades of red, yellow and blue on the floor, walls and Massey’s cement saints.

At 93, Massey is not sure how much longer he’ll be able to craft statues for the Abbey, but he already has drawings ready for statues to come after the Burial and Resurrection.

“Under the dome, we want to put the four evangelists, two by two, and the major prophets of the Old Testament. That’s eight more. I won’t be around to do it, but I’ve designed them,” he said, shuffling around his studio in a Benedictine habit dusted in plaster.

“Ora et Labora. Prayer and work.”

(The B.C. Catholic)

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