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Costa Mesa Catholic church welcomes exact replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà

Parishioners at Friday morning Mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa Aug. 5.
Parishioners at Friday morning Mass at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa, which recently received a marble statue replica of the Pietà to mark a special occasion.
(James Carbone)

Florentine artist Michelangelo’s famed Pietà sculpture has for centuries drawn countless visitors, art lovers and Christian pilgrims to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, where the monolith sits in a chapel near the entrance of the church.

Delicately rendered in Carrara marble and standing nearly 6 feet tall, the figure of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus is a sight to behold for anyone who has the time and resources to see it.

For the record:

10:53 a.m. Aug. 8, 2022An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the surname of Fr. Augustine Puchner.

Now, thanks to a collaboration of Catholic church leaders, parishioners and a company on a mission to share inspiring works of religious art with the world, those unable to book travel plans to Italy will find a viable option in the city of Costa Mesa.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, a parish staffed by Norbertine priests from St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, recently became the glad recipient of an exact replica of the Pietà, created by artists in a foundry in Mexico operated by Arte Divine.

Fr. Pascal Nguyen delivers morning Mass Friday at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa.
(James Carbone)

The 1,000-pound monolith arrived on July 25 at the Costa Mesa church, where it was installed to the right of the altar and blessed in a special ceremony two days later by Fr. Augustine Puchner.

“The Pietà is a magnificent legacy gift for St. John the Baptist parish, a gift that will edify and inspire each person who enters our church for generations to come,” Puchner said in a statement announcing the new addition.

The statue’s arrival marks the 20th anniversary of the Norbertine fathers coming to the Baker Street church at the invitation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which owns the grounds.

A plaque for the replica sculpture of Michelangelo's Pietà at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa.
A plaque for the replica sculpture of Michelangelo’s Pietà at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa includes a QR code where people can learn more about Arte Divine, the company that produced the piece.
(James Carbone)

Fr. Pascal Nguyen today presides over masses at the Costa Mesa church. Among the original priests who came to St. John the Baptist in 2002, he left for St. Michael’s Abbey but recently returned to a leadership role after Puchner was reassigned to a parish in Illinois.

“It is a beautiful reflection of Our Lady of Sorrows, who was at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified. There’s a dignity to it, a sorrow — it’s beautiful,” Nguyen said of the Pietà. “How is it in the providence of God that we receive something so incredible and so magnificent here in Costa Mesa?”

Arte Divine founder and President David Newren provided some answers.

Since 2001, Arte Divine has produced authorized castings derived from, and faithful to, Michelangelo’s original masterpieces. But it wasn’t until six years ago that the company embarked on a journey to create 100 life-size replicas of the Pietà and strategically place them in cathedrals, churches, hospitals and educational institutions worldwide.

The sculpture of Michelangelo's Pietà depicts the body of Jesus cradled by his mother, Mary, after the crucifixion.
Rendered in Carrara marble, the sculpture of Michelangelo’s Pietà depicts the body of Jesus cradled by his mother, Mary, after the crucifixion.
(James Carbone)

The goal of the Pietà Legacy Gift Mission is to install one statue in each state in the U.S. and 50 more in countries across the globe. The effort was born in 2015, after a Catholic Cardinal in Honduras received a replica and suggested more be gifted to the world for people who could not travel to see the original.

“It is arguably the greatest image of Christianity, and the beauty and design of it is such that virtually everybody, regardless of their religious persuasion, is touched when they see it,” said Newren, who was raised in the Mormon faith but is now a practicing Catholic.

“It is kind of a physical invitation to contemplate the nature of the divine and your relationship to God, to Jesus and to Mary.”

Since the mission was born, 65 of the 100 replicas have been produced, each one taking approximately 1,000 hours to create. Crushed marble is mixed with an epoxy resin that makes the finished product more durable than marble alone. It is then painstakingly sanded and polished to perfection.

The gifting of a replica to St. John the Baptist was initiated at the request of a parishioner who contacted Arte Divine and helped locate an anonymous benefactor willing to fund the undertaking.

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa on Friday, August 5.
A sign placed near a brand-new replica sculpture of Michelangelo’s Pietà at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Costa Mesa reads “Please do not touch her. She will touch you.”
(James Carbone)

Jean Wisniewsky, a Costa Mesa resident and church member since 1971 whose children and grandchildren attended school there, said she is grateful for the new art piece.

“You look at it and you see perfect love, a mother’s love,” the 84-year-old said. “You don’t even have to think about it, you feel it.”

Parishioner Lynda Pagel, a 63-year-old mother of three and grandmother of nine, agreed.

“I see the love of Christ giving his life for us, but I also see the mother and her perfect faith,” she said. “I’ve never been out of the U.S. But now I’ve got this. If I can’t get to Rome, I’ve got this.”

Nguyen had several opportunities to see the original Pietà in person when he was studying in Rome in the late 1980s. It used to be more open to public viewing, but after a vandal famously struck the statue with a hammer in 1972, protective measures were put in place.

“After they repaired it, they moved it back in the chapel a bit and put it behind bulletproof glass, so you can’t get as close to her as you could before,” Nguyen recalled.

By comparison, the replica at Saint John the Baptist is much more accessible to parishioners and the visiting public, who may kneel in prayer before it or light a votive candle and communicate a personal prayer, reflection or intention.

A sign by the statue, however, deters people from getting too close.

“Please do not touch her,” it reads. “She will touch you.”

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