Francine Demma found her husband’s body sitting in the car one night last June, his head tilted down and to the side–like Jesus on the cross, she later said. He was dead of a heart attack at age 68. In the weeks and months that followed, sympathy poured in from near and far. A nun in Calcutta wrote that she was praying for Fran at the foot of Mother Teresa’s tomb. Cardinal Francis George issued a public statement calling Carl’s death a “great loss,” saying the people of Chicago “are indebted to him and to his family.” The local chapter of the Sons of Italy presented him posthumously with its first-ever Humanitarian Award. The Illinois Senate and the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed resolutions expressing deep sorrow.
“Carl is becoming like a legend,” a friend of the family said a few months later. And of Fran, he noted, people are “in awe of her.” Fran modestly pooh-poohed such talk, but she couldn’t deny her newfound celebrity among Chicago Catholics. Large groups of parishioners now stood and applauded her. Strangers spontaneously hugged her. People dropped her name. All because of her Carl, a man who had been blessed–some might say cursed–with knowing what God wanted him to do. A heavy burden sometimes accompanies such knowledge, and Carl knew that burden well. God, it turned out, had wanted Carl to build a statue. A very big, very expensive statue.
God didn’t suddenly appear to Carl one day and command him to commission a colossal Madonna. It was just something he knew he had to do and had known, deep inside, for most of his life.
The second of four children, Carl grew up in the 30s and 40s in the south-side neighborhood of Bridgeport, which was then home to segregated communities of working-class immigrants from Europe. His maternal grandparents, Italian immigrants, lived within walking distance. Carl visited them often, absorbing both their native language and an unyielding spiritual passion. A devout Catholic, his grandmother would take him to church and tell him the stories depicted in the stained-glass windows.
The young Carl seized every opportunity to be at the church. He mowed the lawn, ran errands for priests, helped build a teen clubhouse adjacent to the rectory, and otherwise made himself useful. Carl went to All Saints Catholic school and served as an altar boy well into high school–long after he was “too old to be an altar boy,” according to one childhood friend.
One day, when he was nine, he got permission to skip school so he could accompany priests from his parish to a bank downtown. The priests asked him to wait in the car while they deposited collection money, but the car grew oppressively hot, and Carl stepped outside. Looking up at the skyline, he became transfixed by a large statue crowning the Board of Trade building. When the priests returned and asked what had captured his attention, he said the Blessed Mother and pointed to the statue. The priests corrected him. He was looking at a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. “I was all huffy, thinking they were playing a joke on me or something,” Carl recalled nearly 60 years later on the radio program Voices That Listen. “I says, ‘You sure that isn’t the Blessed Mother?'”
Then it dawned on him: If a giant statue of Mary didn’t already exist for all of Chicago to enjoy, he would see to it that one was built.
Others might outgrow their childhood fantasies, but not Carl. He held onto his dream, though for a while it was eclipsed by other, more mundane ambitions.
As a young man, Carl directed his energy toward pursuing Francine Di Giacomo, a pretty girl he’d seen around the neighborhood and predicted he would someday marry. That day arrived in 1956. Carl was 25; Fran 22. Within five years, Carl opened a liquor store on the southwest side, Liquorama, in Brighton Park, and the young couple had two daughters, Carla and Judi. In 1966, when she was eight years old, Carla died of a rare genetic blood disorder, a form of thalassemia. The disorder ran in both Carl and Fran’s families, and Carl had a minor form of it himself.
In 1979, Carl opened another liquor store, in Orland Park, with a couple of partners. He made a good living, and the Demmas moved to Oak Lawn.
Then in May of 1983, Carl came across the embodiment of his childhood vision. A 32-foot stainless steel statue of Mary stopped at Quigley Preparatory Seminary South for ten days while en route from the artist’s studio in Delaware to a parish in Santa Clara, California. Technically, the statue was homeless. The diocese of San Jose had yet to finish preparing the plot of land designated for the statue–a spot overlooking Highway 101–so it went on an accidental three-city tour.
Carl took Judi to see it. It was as tall as a three-story building. This is what daddy is meant to do, he told her. This is what God wants from me. “She says, ‘Aw, dad, please,'” he told Voices That Listen. “‘I says, ‘Jude, it’s gotta be that way.'”
When Carl was 51 commissioning a giant Madonna seemed no less feasible than it had when he was a child.
Carl was a good, generous man, says Fran, as religious as they come. He attended mass every day, she says, “even on vacation if he had to take a cab.” He didn’t feel right if a day began without receiving the Lord. For many years, that meant rising at or before the crack of dawn to attend a 6 AM mass; after he retired the 8:30 mass sufficed.
Carl would sit as close to the front as possible, in the first pew if he could, his arms stretched out over the back, as if embracing the entire row. “He wouldn’t sit there and sleep,” says Lisa Fragale, whose uncle, Carmen, was a good friend of Carl’s. “The man would be listening intensely to every word. When I was at mass with him I’d make sure I’d pay close attention. He’d ask you afterwards, so did you hear the gospel? He wouldn’t quiz you on it. What would be worse than quizzing you was, ‘What do you think?’ He forced you to analyze what you heard. He didn’t want to hear what you heard–he heard it too–he wanted to know what you thought about it. And then he’d tell you what he thought about it.”
It’s no surprise that a man so interested in interpretations of the gospel would mingle with the clergy, and that’s just what Carl did. He befriended priests. He knew bishops. Mother Teresa once took off the small medal of Mary around her neck and handed it to him. Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin gave him the rosaries he kept in his pocket. He was on a first-name basis with Cardinal Bernardin and on a few occasions he stopped by the archdiocese unannounced to bend Joe’s ear. Carl had great respect for the clergy, says his friend Tony Markus, an associate pastor at Most Holy Redeemer Church in Evergreen Park, but “he would tell you if he thought you weren’t doing what God wanted you to do.”
Though he no longer mowed church lawns as an adult, Carl remained dedicated to helping religious institutions. He could be counted on to give nuns rides or, if he was busy, to hire a limousine to take them where they needed to go. He donated money to Misericordia, a Catholic charity that operates homes for mentally and physically disabled children, and to other religious organizations as well. When he heard that a group of Polish seminarians had no transportation, he bought them a van. Did you have to buy a brand-new one, Fran had asked.
Carl worked at Liquorama during the days and left the store to his sister’s husband, Sam Gurgone, at nights. In some ways, it was a curious business for someone like Carl. He didn’t drink and never had, and the work sometimes got him down. It was disheartening to see alcohol’s pull on people down on their luck, and disturbing to see teenagers loitering outside, fishing crumpled bills from their pockets to entrust to strangers.
“He told me once a lady came in,” says Father Markus, “a lady of the night, I guess, and he said, ‘You know you gotta change your life–there’s something better than what you’re doing.'”
Carl didn’t force his beliefs on resistant ears, though. “He wasn’t a screamin’, holier-than-thou type of guy,” says a childhood friend, Peter Liberti. But if you gave him the opportunity, says his sister Antoinette, “Carl could convert you in an hour.”
Carl wore his faith like a tattoo. It was etched into him, permanent, apparent, begging for questions, a conversation starter. He filled the shelves behind Liquorama’s counter with religious iconography: plaster figurines, wood carvings, and holy pictures. His friend Carmen carved olive pits into miniature Jesus heads, and Carl sometimes handed them out. Carmen didn’t always appreciate Carl’s generosity: Carl would occasionally pester him for more heads. Carmen says he would ask what had happened to the one he’d just given him, and that Carl would respond unapologetically, “I gave it away. It had to be. The Holy Spirit.”
“Then it would go on,” Carmen recalls. “‘Can you make me four? Can you make me five? Can you make me ten?’ I don’t know how many I made him.”
Carl told Father Markus the liquor business had taught him a lot about how sin entered the world and that this was the reason he was putting most of his earnings toward the statue. He hoped–and believed–the statue would inspire devotion in the faithless and strengthen it in the pious.
Despite his clerical connections and commendable intentions, Carl couldn’t drum up any support for his statue from the archdiocese. In fact, the local clergy adamantly opposed his plans. In the years since Vatican II, the church had scaled back on lavish construction projects and grand artistic flourishes. Churches were generally smaller, more simply constructed now, and money was thought to be more wisely spent on infrastructure–electricity and heating, for example–and teachers’ salaries. A colossal statue of Mary simply wasn’t a priority.
“Bernardin was really upset about it,” says Antoinette. “He said, ‘Carl, do you know how many hungry people I can feed with that money?'”
Markus says Carl audaciously reminded the cardinal of John 12:8, quipping, “Well, you know what Jesus said: ‘You’ll always have the poor with you.'”
Bishop Alfred Abramowicz tried a different tack to discourage Carl, pointing out that Carl didn’t have that kind of money to spend. The bishop warned about the steep cost of such a creation. He had helped arrange for the 32-foot Madonna to stop at Quigley. His parish, Five Holy Martyrs, was located only a few blocks east of Carl’s store. When the pope had visited Five Holy Martyrs a few years earlier, in 1979, Carl had done the bishop a favor by letting the parish use his parking lot. Now Carl wanted a favor from the bishop. Just tell me how to get in touch with the sculptor, he said.
“We talked for a few minutes,” recalls the sculptor, Charles Cropper Parks, who specializes in figurative bronze and stainless steel sculptures. “And the next thing I knew, he arrived in Wilmington.” To his dismay, Carl could not immediately persuade the Delaware sculptor to get cracking on another Virgin Mary, so he took up the matter with his patron saint at Wilmington’s Saint Anthony of Padua Church. “I’m hollering at Anthony,” he recalled during the Voices That Listen interview. “I’m saying, who put this thought in my mind, why can’t I do it, give me a chance, let me try, I know I can fulfill this dream that I have. And a priest pops up behind the sacristan, and he says, ‘Who ya talking to?'”
Carl asked the priest, Roberto Balducelli, whether he thought a large statue of Mary was something from which people might derive religious inspiration. “I said yes,” recalls Balducelli. “I believe works of art are necessary for the human spirit.” Like the bishop, however, Balducelli doubted Carl’s ability to follow through with such an ambitious project. “He didn’t give you the impression of a man who could afford something like that. He wore ordinary clothes, looked like a workingman. I said, ‘It’s going to cost a fortune.’ He said, ‘I can find the money. I can raise the money.'”
Balducelli asked Carl some questions–had he talked to the bishop? did he have a place for the statue?–to determine whether Carl had thought through his plans or whether “he was a lunatic.” To Balducelli’s surprise, “He started making sense.” Balducelli happened to know Parks, and he contacted the sculptor on Carl’s behalf. Balducelli recalls, “I said, to me, the man is serious.”
Parks said he could make the statue for half a million dollars. Carl didn’t have the money, but somehow he persuaded Parks he’d get it, and Parks finally agreed to work with him. Carl gave the sculptor full artistic control, but they talked at length about Carl’s vision and why he was determined to bring the Madonna to Chicago.
Mary had always been an important figure to Carl. In the Catholic tradition, she is venerated as a model for Christians: she was open to God’s plan and was her son’s first disciple. While other denominations go right to God with their prayers, Catholics often ask Mary to intercede on their behalf. They consider her not only the mother of Jesus, but the mother of everyone, and what mother doesn’t want to indulge her children?
Carl collected decorative plates adorned with Mary’s image and hung them on a wall near his kitchen. He and Fran belonged to a prayer group, Blue Army of Fatima, whose members dressed for meetings in blue and white, colors associated with the Virgin Mary. Carl said Hail Marys several times a day. Sometimes he even said the rosary while he was driving, and Fran would have to remind him to concentrate on the road. “I would get a little nervous,” she admits.
Parks got the impression that Carl thought the church was drifting too far into secularism, that children were no longer being brought up to revere Mary, and that what she represented was lost on the younger generations. Our society honored war heroes, athletes, and politicians with statues, and while they might be worthy, Carl thought no one was as deserving as Mary. He also believed that the best way to reach people raised in a visual culture would be through a powerful image.
Though he’s not Catholic, Parks was moved by Carl’s piety, and he set out to make the statue “worthy of that kind of devotion.”
Fran wasn’t overjoyed when Carl told her about his project, but unlike his clerical friends, she says, she never tried to discourage him. She did, however, ask whether he would consider building a smaller statue. No, Carl told her, he would not.
Carl believed in a correlation between size and impact. The bigger the rendering of Mary, the better the impact. That 5,000 people had come to see and pray before the Madonna at Quigley was, he figured, a direct consequence of its hugeness.
People who didn’t know Carl well questioned his motives. Some wondered whether he planned to erect the statue in front of his store to attract business. Others, says Peter Liberti, just “thought he was crazy.”
At first Carl accepted donations. But Fran worried that he’d be unable to reimburse donors if the project fell through and urged Carl to fund it himself. Carl returned the money that had trickled in. Ten dollars here, fifteen there. He began to make small, erratic payments to Parks, and the statue got off to a slow start.
In the first few years, Parks crafted four- and ten-foot clay models, which he cast in fiberglass. He also made enlargements of the Madonna’s face and hands. “I got started and then I wouldn’t hear anything,” he says. “I’d wonder if I was going to get paid. Then he’d reappear. He’d send me a few thousand dollars, and I’d go as far as I could on that money.”
The biggest obstacle at first was the money. But then, for a while, the statue seemed to fade in importance to Carl. In 1986, a couple of years into the project, the Demmas’ second daughter, 24-year-old Judi, died from the same blood disorder that had taken the life of her sister 20 years earlier.
“It got to a certain point, I didn’t hear from him for six years,” says Parks. “I had written him off.”
Fran, too, privately wondered whether the statue would ever be completed. “For a while there, people would ask me, ‘What’s going on with the statue?’ There were so many things that were going on in our life, and I would just say it was in limbo.”
Carl’s close friend Carmen recalls his frustration: “He would go, ‘Mannaggia, that guy upstairs, you don’t know what he puts me through. You don’t know what he puts me through. But I gotta do it. I gotta do it.'”
“Regardless of what was going to come his way, he said that he was going to accomplish this before he died,” recalls Lisa Fragale. “He would say, ‘For every day that I’m on this earth, I haven’t finished what God wanted me to do.'”
Carl’s grandmother had told him that if you appealed to Saint Anthony on his feast day, he wouldn’t let you down. So in June of 1994, “I went right to his church in Padua, Italy,” Carl told Voices That Listen, “and I’m raving like a maniac again–in front of his entombment–and I say, ‘Hey, show me the way.'”
Anthony answered, but it wasn’t the answer Carl wanted to hear. “He heard a voice within himself telling him to sell his business,” says Fran. “And this was very difficult to him. This was an enterprise he worked hard for for 35 years.” The Brighton Park store was also their cushion for retirement. Carl promised Fran they’d be OK, and Fran trusted Carl to know such things, so Carl set about trying to find a buyer. In 1997, after six years of silence, Parks picked up his telephone and heard Carl on the other end, saying, “Charles, I’m ready to go.”
Carl had sold Liquorama and was about to pour the proceeds into his dream.
Fortunately, Parks had saved the models, and from then on Carl kept close tabs on Parks’s progress. “He was here periodically,” says Parks. “He’d come, have dinner, fly back.”
Parks noticed that Carl’s health had declined since the start of the project. He’d put on weight and seemed to have difficulty getting around. In addition to his thalassemia, which required occasional blood transfusions, Carl had diabetes, hepatitis C, which he’d contracted many years earlier during open-heart surgery, and problems with his liver and pancreas. According to his sister, Antoinette, he needed another heart operation, but his many ailments prevented him from being a candidate. Fran says Carl felt death creeping up on him. “He would say to me, ‘I’m preparing you.’ And I didn’t ever want to listen. I said, ‘Carl, I don’t know what I would do. I don’t think I could go on if anything ever happened to you.’ And he said to me, ‘You will go on.'”
Despite Carl’s poor health, “he was a real bulldog,” says Parks. “I’ve never dealt with anyone who once he got going was so single directed. He talked about little else.”
In 1998, Bishop Abramowicz arranged for the Demmas to attend a small, private mass in Rome with Pope John Paul II. After the service, Carl pulled out a brochure he’d had printed up and roped the pontiff into a discussion about the statue. Fran says Carl asked the pope if he would bless the Madonna when it was completed, and the pope agreed, as long as Carl could get it to Saint Peter’s Square. Carl later looked into transportation possibilities but found the cost of hauling four tons of stainless steel overseas outrageously–and prohibitively–expensive.
A short while later, Fran heard that the pope would be visiting Saint Louis in January of 1999. “That’s when Carl started rolling,” she says, “telling the sculptor to get that statue ready.”
“Toward the end I think he had some concerns,” says Lisa Fragale. “He wanted to see everything finished. He wanted to make sure he actually saw the statue, and he wanted to see the reaction from the people, because that’s what all of this was about.”
Parks worked hard with an assistant to meet the deadline. The ceiling of the renovated mill that served as his studio was too low to assemble the statue under, so Parks moved its four pieces outside, to Bruce Industrial, a steel fabricating shop about six miles away. The vice president of Bruce Industrial, Gary Johnston, often helped Parks transport his sculptures. The men had known each other for about three decades.
Word of the giant Madonna spread through Wilmington, and soon Parks and his assistant found themselves welding for an audience. Each day, more and more people came to watch. Johnston dispatched his shop’s security guards to control the crowds. Toward the end, Parks says, about 900 pilgrims a week were flocking to the shop to glimpse the statue. Some of them had stories. It had rained once when Parks wasn’t around, someone told him, and no one in the crowd got wet. Parks had heard similar claims–miraculous and otherwise–about his first colossal Madonna. He had displayed it in Wilmington’s Rodney Square for a few months before the ACLU objected and he sent it on its meandering trek to California. Later, he heard that it had slashed the crime rate in half in that area of downtown. “Not because of divine intervention,” he says, but because people–potential witnesses–were always around.
Parks completed Carl’s statue on January 18, 1999–15 years after he’d begun. Because of a miscalculation on one of the enlargements, it wound up being 33 feet, 8 inches, a foot and eight inches taller than the first Madonna.
Its magnitude is overwhelming. Mary’s hands are nearly clasped in prayer, her facial expression serene. Light reflects off the welded ribbons of stainless steel that form the robe and hooded cape and shines through their gaps, lending the statue an otherworldly refulgence. Fran says that when Carl laid eyes upon the completed Madonna for the first time, he was filled with an indescribable joy.
Parks says, “He had tears in his eyes and just said ‘Thanks.'”
Carl asked Gary Johnston to drive the statue to Saint Louis. Johnston, a self-described “backsliding Protestant” who jokes that he wants to go to hell when he dies so he can be with all his friends, had no interest in the job, but Carl hounded him and he eventually capitulated. He realized that if he didn’t transport the statue, someone else would–probably someone with less experience moving monumental sculptures. He charged Carl $5,500.
In Saint Louis a few days later, Carl scoured the pope’s planned parade route for a location for the statue. The businesses lining the route turned him away, one after the other. “We rode up and down for a good six hours, eight hours, trying to find a place,” Johnston recalls. “Demma had no permit, and the diocese wouldn’t help him out.” Carl finally tracked down the owner of a vacant lot and got permission to erect the statue on it. He then hired a sign company with a crane to lift it off Johnston’s trailer. The Demmas reported the statue’s location to the Saint Louis police department, as required. Fran says Carl proudly showed detectives his brochure while she joked around with them. “I kept saying, ‘You think you have something with that arch, wait till you see what we have.'”
On January 26, the pope cruised by the statue, encased in his bulletproof popemobile. It didn’t matter to Carl that he didn’t get out. The pontiff had looked up at the massive Madonna and made the sign of the cross.
The crane had proved a costly and inconvenient method for erecting the statue. Once they were back in Wilmington, Carl asked Johnston to retrofit a trailer so the statue could remain fixed to a flatbed and be raised and lowered hydraulically. Johnston didn’t want to take on yet another time-consuming job involving the statue. But Carl was persuasive–in a charmingly exasperating sort of way. “Demma was the biggest pain in the ass I’ve ever met,” Johnston says. “He never took no for an answer. He told me I was going to have to do it or he’d adopt me as a son and I’d never get rid of him.”
The men sat down together, and Carl described what he had in mind. “I sketched it out, and asked would this do, would that do,” Johnston recalls. Carl had already paid Parks $500,000, and Johnston estimated the trailer and parts would cost another $100,000. Carl agreed to the price, and even though he didn’t have the money up front, Johnston’s shop went to work, installing levelers, outriggers, and hydraulic cylinders on a trailer. The company also fabricated a cradle to support the statue during its lift and to protect it from potholes and other vibrations on the road. Johnston says his workers “beefed up” the inside of the statue with stainless steel flat bars, so the strain of a horizontal position wouldn’t cause it to bend. At most, says Johnston, Carl ended up paying him about $30,000 for the job. But Johnston doesn’t mind. He says he’s proud to have had a hand in making the statue what it is. “You cannot go near that statue and not be affected,” he says. “I don’t care who you are–Catholic, Protestant, atheist.”
While waiting for the work on the trailer to be finished, Carl received permission from the city of Wilmington to display the statue, then called Our Lady of Chicago, in front of the main entrance to the First USA Riverfront Arts Center, which was gearing up for an exhibit of Parks’s work. The statue remained at the arts center from February 16 to April 3, 1999. People came “by busloads” to see it, says Johnston. “It’s like it has a magnet to it. I told Parks, I wish I had a buck for everyone that came to see it.”
When Carl saw hundreds of field-tripping Catholic schoolchildren arrive at the statue one day, he told Fran he knew he had done the right thing.
Before the statue departed for Chicago, the president of Wilmington’s city council presented Carl and Fran with a key to the city.
With the pope’s blessing, the remarkable reception in Wilmington, and the approach of the Jubilee Year–during which the church would celebrate the beginning of the third millennium since the birth of Jesus–the archdiocese of Chicago finally embraced Carl’s statue project. It assigned someone in its Millennium Office to help the Demmas coordinate a touring schedule and agreed to host the statue–renamed Our Lady of the New Millennium–at Holy Name Cathedral on Mother’s Day. The archdiocese’s support, however, was conditional: Carl had to provide insurance in case of any accidents.
The Demmas had personal connections to a local trucking company, Marina Cartage, Inc. A supervisor there was a part owner in Carl’s Orland Park liquor business, and Marina’s owner, Mike Tadin, says many years earlier his uncle had taken Fran to the prom. Tadin donated a truck to pull the customized trailer and installed a “special three-stage hydraulic pump” donated by another company. Tadin says he wanted to help Carl in part because he was impressed by his determination. “That’s a remarkable man,” he says. “Everybody doubted the guy, even the church.”
Carl also recruited the help of Marina’s maintenance manager, John Halpin, a nimble white-haired Catholic with a brogue. A former commissioner of Streets and Sanitation who “tried retirement three times,” Halpin agreed to volunteer as the hydraulic lift operator, or “engineer,” because “it’s an honor–it’s the Blessed Virgin”–and because “Mr. Demma said no one will ever raise it or lower it but John.”
After the Mother’s Day appearance at Holy Name Cathedral, at which Cardinal George blessed the statue, Chicago area parishes lined up to host Our Lady of the New Millennium in their courtyards and parking lots. They held special prayer services outside in front of the statue and saw their congregations swell during its weeklong visits. “It is impossible to measure the amount of good and the abundance of grace that has flowed into people’s lives because of the statue,” Father Joe Linster wrote in Saint Patrick’s newsletter after his parish hosted the statue. “We praise the Lord for Carl and Francine Demma.”
At each stop, Carl traversed the crowd, passing out plastic prayer cards bearing a photo of the statue and small “miraculous medals” showing Mary with outstretched arms. Parishioners poured out their woes, not only in front of the statue but in front of the Demmas as well. They said they had cancer or a debilitating disease; someone they loved had just undergone surgery or suffered a stroke. “In the beginning both of us were feeling very down to hear these stories,” says Fran. “Sometimes that was a little hard to deal with.” But then the Demmas began to hear about answered prayers and improved lives, and again Carl said he had done the right thing.
“I saw him one day at a neighboring parish,” says Father Markus. “He said, ‘Oh, Father, you wouldn’t believe how the statue has changed people–more than I ever could have imagined. People come up to me and tell me things that I don’t even want to hear, that I don’t want to know–what they’ve done in their life. But they come and say, I’m changed.'”
Delighted by what he was seeing, Carl became a veritable art patron. A sculptor in Italy carved for him life-size wooden statues of Mother Teresa, Padre Pio, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, which Carl donated to various parishes. He also commissioned another colossal piece from Parks, this one of Jesus the Good Shepherd, but according to Fran, Carl had a feeling he might not see this one through.
When people expressed their gratitude for Our Lady of the New Millennium, Carl credited God. When they said he would go straight to heaven for his act of faith, he told them that if making statues were all it took to throw open the gates of heaven, everybody would be making statues.
One man, inspired by Carl, did commission his own piece, a bronze statue of Jesus–The Icon of the Divine Mercy. It was small by Carl’s standards, only 18 feet tall. The man rang the Demmas’ doorbell one day and enlisted Carl’s help in deciding what to do with it. Carl, unsurprisingly, suggested sending it on tour and agreed to help with the transportation. He arranged for the statue to be shipped to him from Mexico, via Marina Cartage.
By now Carl was 68 and in failing health. Both of his parents had died at 69. So had his older sister and his younger sister’s husband. Carl called his younger sister last June 22 with a prescient message. He wouldn’t die at 69, he told her, he would die sooner. Only 15 months younger than Carl, Antoinette was sliding toward 69 herself. Carl tried to reassure her. She didn’t have to worry, he would break the 69 jinx.
Two days later, Carl delivered the 18-foot bronze Jesus to its home at Saint Stanislaus Kostka rectory, on the near northwest side. From there it was scheduled to go on a five-month tour, with Carl as its custodian. That afternoon, the Demmas attended a celebration at Soldier Field. Billed as the archdiocese’s highlight of the Jubilee Year, the “Field of Faith” celebration drew a crowd 30,000 strong and included a two-hour musical presentation, a sacramental procession, and a mass led by Cardinal Francis George. Our Lady of the New Millennium greeted the faithful from a post outside the stadium, overlooking Lake Shore Drive. A light rain baptized the crowd that day. Someone snapped a photo of Carl, a contented smile radiating out from under his umbrella.
Carl spent the next evening at Saint Stanislaus Kostka, where a special mass and prayer service took place in front of the Divine Mercy statue. He handed out prayer cards, posed for pictures with Mexican parishioners, and sat alone in his car after the crowd had dispersed, staring at the statue and saying the rosary. He drove back to Oak Lawn at about 9:30, pulled into his semicircular driveway, and breathed his last breath.
Since Carl’s death Fran has taken over paying the statue’s insurance and transportation costs, bringing prayer cards and miraculous medals to the host parishes, and coordinating the touring schedule with the archdiocese, the truck driver, and John Halpin.
She finds it comforting that Carl lived long enough to see Our Lady of the New Millennium inspire an outpouring of emotion and devotion. His goal was to create an image that would awaken people’s faith, she says, “and he did accomplish that.” By the time he died, his statue had stopped at 34 parishes, and more than 200 were on a waiting list to host it.
Wherever it goes, Our Lady of the New Millennium attracts a steady stream of worshipers and passersby. It inspires an odd mix of prayer and commerce, spirituality and tourism. Vendors hawk religious trinkets: crucifixes, rosary beads, prayer cards. Parishes sell tall votive candles with the statue’s likeness printed on glass holders. A shrine invariably springs up around the statue. Visitors leave bouquets, burn candles, write petitions, kneel, cross themselves, snap photos, shoot video, stuff donation boxes, and kiss their fingers and touch the statue’s toes. And someone in every crowd, it seems, boasts about having some connection–no matter how tenuous–to the man who made it all possible.
Carl’s friend Carmen says he has overheard parishioners talking ecstatically about simply shaking Carl’s hand. “You could see how proud they were–just even meeting him for 15 minutes.” But for those who “missed out” on the chance to meet Carl, he says, “Fran is the next best thing.”
That was evident one evening last fall during the statue’s stay at Saint Hyacinth in Logan Square. A priest invited Fran up to the podium and she was introduced, by another priest, to hundreds of parishioners who had come to worship in Polish. When that priest lightly touched her shoulder and spoke Carl’s name into the microphone, the crowd leapt to its feet in applause.
“That was a real honor for these people,” a nun told Fran afterward.
As if on cue, a young woman Fran had never met before sped over with her arms spread wide. “I just wanted to say hello,” she gushed, hugging Fran. “I’ve thought about you.”
Fran has gotten used to strangers approaching her in this way. They say she is in their prayers; they thank her for keeping Carl’s dream alive; and they tell her how the statue has touched them.
Fran arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes at Ashland and Leland on October 30 and saw a crowd of about 50 congregating on the church steps. People always came to greet the statue. But this time it was late.
Fran called Halpin on her cell phone. He and the truck driver were on their way from Saint Hyacinth’s. They had been delayed by a candlelight procession–2,000 people, he said–that followed the statue out of the church courtyard. Halpin and the driver had circled the block and then stopped for a while so parishioners could sing hymns and say their good-byes.
With time to kill, Fran went over to the side yard to visit a small stone statue of Mary that had been defaced. Then she ducked into a chapel to pray. When she emerged, Our Lady of the New Millennium was parked in front of the church, resting supine on the flatbed, staring up at the evening sky.
The crowd had grown. Most of the people were parishioners who’d had advance notice of the statue’s arrival. But some had been curious about the crowd. A middle-aged man named Luis said he’d driven past the statue at Milwaukee and Pulaski and made a swift U-turn to follow it–“I didn’t care where.”
Fran quickly found herself surrounded by five grateful women from the church. One asked if she knew someone named Oscar Mendez. He had stopped by earlier asking for permission to sell his photos of the statue.
“He dropped your name several times,” the woman told Fran.
Fran wasn’t surprised. “I have more cousins and more friends,” she mused. “City Hall and everywhere.”
But she had met Mendez. A photojournalist, he follows Our Lady of the New Millennium from stop to stop, shooting it from every possible angle in every possible light. He credits the statue with his return to the church and estimates that he’s taken 4,000 photos of it. Some he posts on the musical Web site he created about the statue and its travels.
With help from the truck driver, Halpin set to work raising the statue. He extended the truck’s outriggers, which balance the statue and prevent it from tipping over in strong winds. After unscrewing its head support, he ran around to the side of the truck, opened a control box, and activated the hydraulic pump.
The 33-foot tall, 8,400-pound Virgin rose slowly, horizontally at first, as if levitating, then angled upright, vibrating slightly as it tipped.
Seated onlookers stood to see better. People standing shifted their weight, dodging heads and limbs, jockeying for the best view.
Once the statue was upright, Halpin locked it down and lowered the cradle.
Our Lady of the New Millennium towered over Leland Avenue. A painted brick building to its left screamed YOUR AD HERE.
Motorists at the intersection stared out their windows slack jawed. A kid on a scooter kicked over from across Ashland Avenue. A church volunteer gasped, “She’s wonderful.”
Halpin placed a standing sign on the ground, detailing the statue’s height and weight and crediting Parks and Carl for their roles in its creation. He also set out a laminated tribute board that someone had started at a parish in Westchester, the first stop after Carl’s death. Among the pieces of paper fastened to the board–a poem, a thank-you note, a prayer–was a color copy of the photo of Carl under the umbrella that had been taken at Soldier Field the day before he died.
As Halpin moved out of the way, a woman rushed to the statue to touch its toes, a stampede of parishioners on her heels. “Go on,” one boy dared another. “Touch it.” Three men began strumming acoustic guitars, and soon a chorus materialized behind them on the church steps, belting out hymns in Spanish.
Stories of the mammoth mobile Mary’s influence abound, some as improbable as the statue itself. There’s talk of its prompting instant conversions, miraculous healings, unlikely forgiveness, and reaffirmations of faith. A formerly disabled man claims he received the power to walk on his own two feet. An elderly Polish woman says that shortly after praying for a car in which to follow the statue, she received a free set of wheels from a priest. She began to notice another elderly Polish woman at each stop and “through the Mother, we became like sisters.” Drunk drivers seem particularly receptive. One man heading home after a night of carousing allegedly screeched to a halt when the Madonna, parked at an Orland Park church, burst into view. He fell to his knees and shouted, “I repent, I repent.” Another man at another church reportedly placed a bottle of beer on the roof of his car and then watched, mystified, as a gust of wind hurled it to the ground, smashing it to pieces. “Threw it like three meters,” says statue groupie Oscar Mendez, who claims to have witnessed the incident. The driver then “kneeled and started crying” and is said to have sworn off alcohol for good. Mendez excitedly dragged the man over to Fran, who, rather than celebrating his epiphany, scolded him for his irreverence–for drinking in front of the Madonna.
Though Catholics are quick to distinguish between the idolatrous act of worshiping the statue and the pious act of venerating the figure the statue represents, many assign Our Lady of the New Millennium human qualities and refer to it with the personal pronouns she and her. A visitor once tied a red cloth containing a jumble of tiny metal limbs to the statue, and another visitor, from a distance, mistook it for blood. When the statue is raised to a standing position after a good rain, water backed up in the eye wells tends to stream down its face. On more than one occasion, murmurs about tears have rippled through the crowd. “I tell them she’s no weeping Madonna,” Fran says. “We don’t want to start anything like that.”
Fran keeps a memory book of its first year. The pages, decorated with drawings around the borders, contain photos and a narrative of the statue’s travels. Now she will always remember that at Sacred Heart in Palos Hills they said the rosary in 19 languages, that at Saint Patrick’s in Saint Charles friends donated flowers and palm fronds to surround the statue, and that the mayor’s parish in Bridgeport, Nativity of Our Lord, hosted the statue on the anniversary of the first Mayor Daley’s death. And then there was that rainy day at the Demmas’ own parish, Saint Germaine’s in Oak Lawn. The sky was starting to clear up, and Fran overheard someone mention a rainbow. “I thought, oh God, now they’re seeing rainbows,” she recalls. Nevertheless, she stepped out from under a canopy to investigate and, to her delight, saw a rainbow centered right over the statue. “That was really like a message of God being pleased with this, and I don’t talk like that usually,” she says.
Fran has piles of photos from last year too, which she plans someday to arrange in a year 2000 memory book. “There isn’t a parish that doesn’t have a story or two to tell,” she says. But mostly the story is the same. “It draws the community together.”
The week at Our Lady of Lourdes proved typical. Visitors came in droves at all hours of the day and night. “It’s sort of like zap, instant religious phenomenon,” observed a woman who lives nearby.
On the rainy, blustery evening that Halpin returned to lower the statue, a petite, elderly woman named Twiggy huddled in a doorway across the street from the church, clutching an Our Lady of the New Millennium candle and lamenting the statue’s departure. She had been to the church every day to see it and was sorry to see it go. “This excites me and I’m not even Catholic,” she said. “I’m Russian Orthodox. I’ve never seen something like this. It’s like a blessing for the whole neighborhood and myself.” She claimed two degrees of separation from Carl. Her neighbor, she beamed, “knows the fellow that started this.”
Our Lady of the New Millennium is now parked for the winter at Sacred Heart in Palos Hills. It will resume its tour in March and is booked through the end of the year. Requests for visits inundate the archdiocese, from as far away as Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. But its days on the road are nearing an end.
“It can only go so much,” says Fran. By the end of the year, she will decide, with input from the archdiocese, where Our Lady of the New Millennium will reside permanently. Plenty of parishes are eager to take her in, but “I feel she’ll know where she wants to go,” Fran says. And Fran, of course, will accommodate her–as long as she wants to remain in the area, at a centralized location. After all, Fran says, “Carl made it for Chicago.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.