Annunciation image from hospital finds new life

St. Joseph School claims marble statues of Mary and Gabriel, saves them from St. Mary’s demolition            

By Bill Brewer

Something old is new again and is serving as an inspiration to students and faculty alike at St. Joseph School in Knoxville thanks to St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital.

As demolition of much of the former St. Mary’s Hospital was set to begin in 2020, the future of a large relief image of the Annunciation that greeted patients and the public who entered a main entrance to the hospital was hanging in the balance.

The statues of Mary and Gabriel, the latter of which weighs an estimated 450 pounds, are now mounted on a wall at St. Joseph School in Knoxville.

Religious icons, statues, sacred vessels, and furniture that helped give the hospital its Catholic identity through the years were claimed prior to demolition by Diocese of Knoxville organizations that could use them, including St. Joseph School. Tennova Healthcare, which owned the former St. Mary’s Hospital, sold the property in North Knoxville to the city of Knoxville and Lincoln Memorial University.

The city of Knoxville is converting its part of the site into a new municipal safety building, and LMU is opening a satellite campus on the property.

As the demolition deadline closed in, the Botticino marble statues of Mary on bended knees and the angel Gabriel letting her know she would become the mother of God that were affixed to a large green marble backdrop built into the hospital wall were unclaimed and could not be easily removed.

That’s when supporters and volunteers with St. Joseph School stepped in.

And just as that scene comforted Catholics and non-Catholics alike seeking healing at St. Mary’s Hospital, it is again serving as a spiritual beacon for the St. Joseph School community.

St. Joseph principal Andy Zengel said the newly relocated Annunciation wall and its platform and walkway will serve as a daily gathering place, where the Angelus will be recited each school day.

“This is just a beautiful image that we were able to add from St. Mary’s Hospital and save it from destruction. Every child walks right by here every day on his or her way to recess. This is a wonderful way of (recreation) with prayer, with play, with learning. I want to thank everyone for donating to this project and contributing with your gifts,” Mr. Zengel said.

Father Charlie Donahue, CSP, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, blessed the marble Annunciation images and the wall on which they hang on April 21 during a ceremony in which those who created the new Annunciation wall were recognized.

To begin the blessing, Father Donahue prayed, “Almighty, everlasting God, who does not forbid us to carve likenesses of your saints, in order that whenever we look at them with our fatherly eyes we may call to mind their holy lives and resolve to follow in their footsteps, may it please you to bless and hallow these statues, which have been made in honor of your Holy Spirit of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and of St. Gabriel, your archangel. Grant that all who in their presence pay devout homage to you, obtain your grace in this life, and everlasting glory in the life to come, through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.”

Those recognized for their efforts to relocate the statues, erect the wall on which they are suspended, and build the grounds where students and faculty will gather for the daily Angelus included Peter Dunn, Omar Torres, Jorge Quiroz, Dan Leuciuc, and Eddie Bellinghausen.

Mr. Zengel also recognized Sister Mary Annunciata Dannaher, a Religious Sister of Mercy who served as administrator of St. Mary’s Hospital from its founding in 1930 until her death in 1963, and Sister Mary Martha Naber, RSM, a longtime member of St. Mary’s Hospital staff whose task it was to find suitable places for all of the hospital’s religious artifacts.

“This image was originally dedicated in 1966 at St. Mary’s Hospital when they opened the new Annunciation wing. It was named in honor of Sister Mary Annunciata, who was the longtime hospital administrator there. It had been standing there for 55 years. Unfortunately, St. Mary’s Hospital has since closed. Last summer, before that particular wing was torn down, some of our friends made us aware that this really was the last piece of religious artifacts left in the hospital. Many of the other ones have already been transferred to other places. This one, because it was literally built into the building, and the wing was built around it, was a 7,000-pound structure. It was really impossible to move it out until they were tearing down the building,” Mr. Zengel explained.

Mr. Dunn, who was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in the 1960s, credited Mr. Bellinghausen, a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus who is a masonry contractor, for performing the masonry work on the Annunciation wall, and Mr. Leuciuc, who has experience in handling walled statues, for removing the Annunciation images from the hospital and rehanging them at St. Joseph.

The statues were stored in a closet at St. Joseph School until the wall to support them could be built, according to the principal.

Mr. Dunn described how his sister, St. Joseph teacher Rita Cook, was told about the statues and wanted to save them from ruin as the hospital faced demolition.

“I went to look at them, and just by providence a guy who was there on site mentioned Dan Leuciuc’s name, that he had come and looked at it. But there was no decision made to save the statues. They were going to be demolished with the building unless we got them out within a week or so. I knew Dan. He’s the owner of HomeChoice Windows, Doors & Floors. We have worked together. I called him and he generously volunteered his time and expertise in moving statues. He did that growing up in Michigan. He knew how to get them off the wall. He saved them at his warehouse. And he knew how to get them back on a wall,” Mr. Dunn said. “It was just providential that it all worked out.”

Mr. Leuciuc explained that he and several volunteers removed the statues from the wall inside the dark hospital corridor using headlights and a large band-saw blade. He and three co-workers went through some 30 pairs of work gloves as the saw blade cut through the gloves.

“We did that for about three hours, and then we got Mary off the wall. We didn’t realize how much Gabriel weighed until we got him off the wall. Gabriel probably weighs 450 pounds. There was a lot of huffing and puffing to get him off the wall,” Mr. Leuciuc said.

He and his co-workers then went to work on anchoring the statues of Mary and the angel Gabriel to the specially created wall between St. Joseph’s main building and the new wing between the school and gymnasium.

St. Joseph School principal Andy Zengel speaks to the gathering at the dedication of the Annunciation wall on the campus April 21. Father Charlie Donahue, CSP, watches at center-left.

Mr. Leuciuc also explained that at St. Mary’s Hospital the statues were hanging on brackets on top of a green marble backdrop that could not be salvaged. At St. Joseph, the statues were re-hung on brackets and then affixed to the masonry wall by a very strong adhesive bonding compound.

“They should be here far after everyone else is gone,” Mr. Leuciuc said. “We’re very pleased with how it turned out and we are happy we could be part of it. Nobody wanted to try it, so Peter reached out, and I said sure, why not.”

Sister Mary Martha was tasked with a large, complex assignment to find good Catholic homes for all of the St. Mary’s Hospital religious artifacts. And she was successful right up to the beginning of demolition. The Sisters of Mercy were instrumental in operating St. Mary’s Hospital from its beginning in 1930 until it closed in 2018.

She appreciates Mr. Zengel, St. Joseph School, and school president Father Chris Michelson for accepting the Annunciation artwork in memory of Sister Mary Jolita Hughes, RSM, a longtime St. Joseph teacher who died in 2001.

“I’m so grateful for all the time and effort given to finding a ‘home’ for the beautiful Annunciation scene. That was a monumental task that Andy undertook out of love for Sister Jolita and the Sisters of Mercy,” Sister Mary Martha said.

“The people who can give you an understanding of the entire process, which involved removing the marble from St. Mary’s, storing it until plans were finalized for its relocation, preparing the new location at St. Joseph School, installing it, etc., are Andy Zengel and Becky Dodson (Tennova vice president). I hope to see the fruit of their efforts and hear stories about all that when we are able to travel later this year,” she noted.

Sister Mary Martha singled out for special recognition the demolition crew at St. Mary’s, the movers, the construction crew at St. Joseph, as well as those who were the “master minds,” and the benefactors who made it all possible.

“How very special to have this beautiful, visible, ‘spiritual connection’ of St. Joseph School, St. Mary’s Hospital, and the Sisters of Mercy for generations to come. We are deeply grateful to Andy and to all involved in this labor of love. It is a magnificent memorial in honor of Sister Mary Annunciata, Sister Mary Jolita, and all the Sisters of Mercy,” she said.

Mr. Zengel said there are plans to add to the St. Joseph grounds around the relief wall so more people can gather there for prayer or other services.

“It’s just a beautiful scene that we’re able to save, and now it will be visible for all the St. Joseph students as they pass by it every day on their way to recess and lunch. It means so much to us, the scene of the Annunciation, the beginning of the Incarnation, when Jesus Christ became present here on earth and the Word became Flesh as we pray in the Angelus every day at noon. It’s just a powerful symbol, not only to our community, but as visitors come to basketball games and walk by it on their way to the gym. It’s a powerful message of God’s love in stone,” Mr. Zengel said.

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