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Inspired by Lady Liberty, a statue of Mary is envisioned for San Ysidro

Inspired by Lady Liberty, a statue of Mary is envisioned for San Ysidro
Artist Jim Bliesner modeled his statue of the Virgin Mary after Lady Liberty, a beacon to immigrants. The 40-foot-tall "Welcome the Stranger" will go up at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in San Ysidro. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

She will stand tall, with a torch held high, on a hilltop in San Ysidro, overlooking the U.S.-Mexico border region.

Inspired by the Statue of Liberty, the 40-foot-tall monument of Mary, mother of Jesus, will stand as a symbol intended to welcome immigrants and refugees headed to the U.S.

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The statue will go up on the hilltop parking lot of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, where community members convened Friday to kick off a crowdfunding campaign to raise $1 million to build the monument.

“It will stand as a beacon of hope and encouragement for people engaged in the struggle of the migrant,” said artist Jim Bliesner, who drew inspiration from immigrants across San Diego for the statue’s design.

The $2-million project, spearheaded by nonprofit San Diego Organizing Project, already has received $1 million from the California Endowment, a private health foundation. The hope is to raise the next $1 million and build the statue by early 2019.

It will be named “Welcome the Stranger.”

The monument and its location will send a strong message about the border, said Bishop Robert McElroy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego.

“It is a symbol and powerful reminder that for us, for us as people of faith, for us as America, the border represents not a line of separation,” he said, “but a line that unites us to Latin America.”

He said the statue will commemorate the past, the present and the future of the U.S.

First, he said, it will be a reminder that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants who contributed to “help build America.”

“That gets lost in the current conversation so easily,” he said.

The statue also will represent hope for a brighter future for the immigrants and refugees who one day will begin what McElroy described as an arduous journey to the U.S.

The idea of the sculpture surfaced roughly a year ago. It was designed by Bliesner with input from community members who attended workshops, where they shared their ideas and personal stories.

“Most of the inspiration came from listening to members of the congregation and the community about how emotional this subject is. People were crying, people were telling their stories,” Bliesner said. “I couldn’t help but take that away as the primary element in creating the piece.”

As ideas were generated, Mary emerged as a symbol of hope. Community members noted she fled with her family to Egypt as a refugee soon after the birth of Jesus.

The statue incorporates several symbolic elements. The “turgid, severe geometry” of Mary’s robe, which has several perforations, represents the difficult trek immigrants embark on, while spots of color in the folds of her robe symbolize moments of kindness in their journeys, Bliesner said.

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The torch, he said, represents hope for a brighter future.

LEED lighting within the statue will illuminate it at night. Seating and drought-tolerant landscaping will surround the base.

As part of the fundraising campaign’s kickoff, community members tied ribbons to a makeshift fence at the site where the statue will stand. On the pink, orange, green and yellow ribbons were the names of loved ones affected by the country’s immigration policies, including relatives who were deported or who are living in the U.S. illegally.

San Ysidro resident Maria Elena Esquer, a parishioner at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, wrote the names of her two adult sons who live in Tijuana and are awaiting visas to visit her.

“I have a lot of faith they will come,” she said.

Carolina Ulloa wrote the names of her brother, who was deported 15 years ago, and her sister, who was deported 10 years ago.

She said she hasn’t lost faith that her siblings will be able to return to the U.S.

For more information about the statue, visit welcomethestranger.us.

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