This pieta of Mary holding her son Jesus has been returned to Sacred Heart Parish in Red Deer, Alta., 30 years after it had gone to the city’s museum following a fire at the church. Photo courtesy Sacred Heart Parish

Pieta returned to Red Deer church home after 30 years

By 
  • December 4, 2021

A life-sized pieta of Mary holding Jesus’ body that has spent more than 30 years at the city’s museum has been returned to Sacred Heart Church in Red Deer, Alta

The pieta was donated to the parish by Marie Wilder Lerouge and stood at the church from 1959 until a fire in 1990. Older members of the parish remember seeing the pieta at the back of the church on the left hand side of the entrance.

In September, Karen Boston, pastoral assistant at the parish, overheard a conversation between staff reminiscing about a beautiful pieta that used to be at the parish. A parishioner had seen the pieta at the Red Deer Museum around a decade previous during a special exhibition. That conversation kickstarted work to see if the pieta could be returned.

“It was just a random comment by two of the parishioners when they happened to be in the office,” said Boston. “One said, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have statues in the church?’ The other one said, ‘Yeah, what about that pieta that was here, that’s at the museum?’ ”

Boston also wondered why it remained at the museum and wasn’t back at the church.

The museum’s contact person was Maguerite Watson, a Sacred Heart parishioner and granddaughter of Marie Wilder and daughter of Camille J. Lerouge, a celebrated member of the Red Deer Catholic community who served as trustee in the Catholic school system from 1917-1951 and as secretary treasurer for the district for 31 years. 

“I phoned (Watson) and I think she said the 24th of September was their next board meeting,” said Boston. “The lady that could give the OK was retiring at the end of September so we just caught her before she retired, to be able to give that approval. I mean, God’s hand was in every part of it.”

“My grandmother lived with us when we were kids,” said Watson, 83. “I remember seeing (the pieta) in the church and I don’t know how come it ended up at the museum after the fire. It had some damage to it. It was taking up a lot of space at the museum and wasn’t on display. The church was happy to get it back.”

Museum collections coordinator Melanie Berndt says it appears the pieta was brought there for safe storage after the fire, and was supposed to be returned at an appropriate time. The repatriation was a somewhat unique situation as the statue had never been officially part of the collection but was only being held in safe keeping. It is not standard practice for artifacts to be given back after a normal transfer of artifacts to the museum. 

“There was a call from the church saying, you have this, and it seemed like the best idea to give it back,” said Berndt. “It was still within museum standard practice because it was staying within the community and given back to another non-profit agency. There seemed to be a lot of recent interest in it and everything just seemed to work out. They were very happy to receive it back and the timing was just right.” 

The statue had some broken areas and crumbling paint on Jesus’ sash. Catholic statue restorer Lois Caron was approached and asked to mend and help refurbish it. A hobby of Caron’s, she has worked on approximately 50 other statues in the region all free of charge. With most of the statue in good shape she was able to leave most of the piece untouched.

For Watson, seeing the statue back at the church completed a legacy left by her grandmother. Parishioners with memories of the statue were awestruck to see it returned.

“It’s on the south side wall with the light coming in from the side and it’s just beautiful,” said Boston. “A lot of (the parishioners) just go back in time in their memories when they see it. They’re just really so grateful to have that piece of history.”

The 1990 fire did not destroy the church completely and it is known that a wooden crucifix stationed behind the altar survived the blaze as well. In discussions with the museum, the church was told it may also still have pieces from the stations of the cross badly damaged from the fire.

“There is maybe more that was salvaged from the fire, I don’t know,” said Boston. “It was interesting. I wanted to maybe go over (to the museum) sometime and say could you open up some more boxes just to see? They said we could do that anytime.”

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