Monique Palma Whittaker carefully chips away at old paint on the Marian statue at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica. The statue is one of the final pieces to the restoration project at the church that has been ongoing since 2002. Photo by Mickey Conlon

A fresh face on an old friend

  • August 24, 2019

A familiar face that has greeted visitors entering St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica since the late-1980s is getting a facelift.

The statue of Mary holding Jesus that graces the courtyard at the front entrance to the cathedral is being restored over the final two weeks of August by painting conservator Monique Palma Whittaker and her company MPW Art Restoration.

“My job is essentially to stabilize the artwork and clean it so it’s healthy and can live on for another 30, 50 years before any more interventions have to be done,” said the 33-year-old Toronto-based Palma Whittaker. “My goal isn’t necessarily to change the look of the sculpture but to stabilize it and bring it back to what it was when they first installed it.”

All the work on the fibreglass sculpture is being done in situ, meaning onsite. A scaffolding system has been set up and Palma Whittaker can be viewed as she works behind a plexiglass window. It’s not the norm in her work, but Palma Whittaker has done previous onsite restorations when she worked in Italy. The Catholic artist is enjoying the experience as people stop to chat about the restoration.

“It’s nice to talk with people (who venture by),” she said.

The restoration artist has built up quite a resume at such a young age. After studying at Concordia University in Montreal, she furthered her schooling in Florence, Italy, and has restored various important artworks, including 14th-century religious paintings from St. James Church in Porto Azzurro to wall murals at Teatro della Pergola in Florence. 

She works on more than church restorations — currently she’s also restoring murals from the Silver Dollar, a blues bar in a heritage building in downtown Toronto that is being turned into a condominium — but prefers working in a church setting. It dates back to watching the restoration of the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate in her hometown of Guelph, Ont. 

“It’s far more gratifying to work with these sacred spaces than to work on something that doesn’t have any religious or communal background to it,” she said.

This project is mostly about cleaning and re-paining the statue that was erected in memory of Chantal Marie Heffernan by her parents Paul and Carol Heffernan during the Marian Year of 1987-88. Grime will be removed and it will be carefully cleaned removing the top layer of paint. Chips will be filled with fibreglass and polyester resin. The plan was to match the original colours, with a couple of small changes, said Palma Whittaker. A bronze patina on Mary’s feet will be carried on to the rest of the flesh on her and the Christ child in her arms. 

“It’s going to elevate the sculpture a bit more and bring more cohesiveness to it,” she said.

But that could change as over the first couple days of sanding Palma Whittaker was discovering buried beneath the grime the original may be bronze all over.

It’s all part of the detective work Palma Whittaker has to do to make sure she is as true to the original as possible. She’s been hindered by the fact there is little information available about the original and she’s been unable to find who the artist is or what studio it was produced at. It’s unlike a recent project she completed at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Little Italy where she restored the paintings by Guido Nincheri. Plenty of photos were available and much written history as well.

“The more information you can obtain before starting a project will usually help it travel along a lot easier,” she said. “It takes a lot of the guessing game out of the project.”

In this case, it’s been hard to decipher the original colours that have been exposed to 30-plus years of the elements, pollution, acid rain and carbon damage. It’s meant Palma Whittaker has had to conduct plenty of testing.

“I have a digital microscope so I can get up close and personal onsite,” she said. “It hooks up on your iPhone so you can zoom in and see layers of pigment and dirt. Once you clean it off you can establish what it looked like in the beginning and it can inform on how I proceed.”

Fr. Edward Curtis, rector of the cathedral, said the statue has experienced a growing devotion over the years. He sees people stopped there in prayer and often sees flowers placed around the base. He’s excited to see it restored to its original beauty.

Curtis said there is a slight change to the statue. Where before it faced people as they left the cathedral, it has been turned to greet people as they enter the grounds.

“I think it is very appropriate, as people enter our Cathedral Basilica, that they do so under the gaze of Jesus and Mary, along with St. Michael the Archangel, above the main doors, looking over their shoulder. You can’t get any more Catholic than that,” he said.

This is the last step in the exterior restoration of the cathedral, which has undergone a $128-million renovation dating back to 2002. If all goes to plan, Palma Whittaker should be finished by the end of August.

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