Fr. Peter Larisey has a seat with Homeless Jesus at Regis College. Photo courtesy of Timothy Schmalz

Late Jesuit shapes sculptor’s spirit, art

  • August 30, 2020

St. Padre Pio built a hospital, performed miraculous healing acts, heard over five million confessions and manifested the stigmata. But the Italian priest, who died in 1968 at age 81, knew his highest purpose would be accomplished following his departure from Earth. 

“After my death, I will do more,” he said. “My real mission will begin after my death.”

This quote strikes a deep chord with Timothy Schmalz, the renowned Canadian sculptor whose works include Homeless Jesus. On April 30, his spiritual mentor, Fr. Peter Larisey, died from COVID-19 at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto at age 91.

“I believe very spiritual people like Fr. Peter Larisey, even after they pass away, remain a very spiritual presence that I feel right now is with me,” said Schmalz. “I pray to Fr. Peter while I am sculpting. Perhaps what Padre Pio said is true about spiritual people being present in a more beautiful, wonderful way.”

The St. Jacob’s, Ont., sculptor first met Larisey, a Jesuit for 68 years and a priest for 55, close to 30 years ago at age 21. Larisey’s entrance into his life coincided with Schmalz’s transformation into an artist wholly devoted to crafting Christian works. 

“It was an unbelievable experience,” said Schmalz.

“He brought a specific amount of dignity to the idea of being a Christian artist in modern times, and he conveyed absolute optimism and hope in the power of our work.”

Larisey had already accrued a reputation as a grand champion of Christian art by the time Schmalz met him. The native of Dartmouth, N.S., had earned a PhD in art history from Columbia University in New York, taught religion and art at universities, including Carleton and Regis College, and curated exhibitions for a host of Canadian artists. And he was on the verge of completing his book on Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris — Light for a Cold Land: Lawren Harris’s Work and Life - An Interpretation — which became a finalist for a Governor General’s Award in 1994.

Schmalz was encouraged to seek out an audience with Larisey, and from that a decades-long friendship formed. 

The advice Schmalz received from Larisey transcended art. He viewed Larisey as an embodiment of Christianity’s beauty. 

“His ideas of openness, acceptance and love just really poured into my re-acquaintance with Christianity. It infused me with the idea at an early age of helping the poor and giving awareness to the least of our brothers.”

Larisey spoke to Schmalz many times about the need for reunification between the Church and art. Schmalz said Larisey believed that for many years artists “found nothing exciting in using Christianity as a subject matter,” and the Church “kind of believed that they couldn’t trust the work the artists were creating.”

These words loomed large for Schmalz. For nearly 30 years, he’s rendered visual representations such as When I was Hungry and Thirsty and The Good Samaritan that espouse Christ-like values of charity and compassion.

Larisey’s impact on Homeless Jesus, a depiction of Jesus as a homeless person sleeping on a park bench, was paramount. He secured the first home for the provocative bronze sculpture that visually translates Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Larisey successfully advocated for the installation of Homeless Jesus in the front plaza of Regis College in downtown Toronto. He then e-mailed Schmalz to find out how quickly he could get the statue to the campus for installation. 

“It went from zero to full blast, and I have Fr. Peter Larisey to thank,” said Schmalz. 

Following the unveiling of the original in 2013, copies have been established in cities across the globe, including Rome. 

The social isolation brought upon by COVID-19 meant Schmalz could not attend a memorial service to honour his departed friend. He intends to craft a visual memorial in tribute to Larisey’s vibrant life. 

Schmalz also commemorates Larisey by keeping him in his mind and heart as he produces new creations. The sculptor said these past months of physical distancing empowered him to immerse himself into sculpting at a level “more intense than I usually have been.”

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