Sister Elsa taught fourth grade at Saint Charles Borromeo Academy in San Diego, and I am grateful to this day for what she taught me. I remember her as being quite old, which means that she looked older than my parents (who were just ‘old’).
Elsa was very olde schoole, stern but kind. I remember vividly some fifty years later the disgust in her voice as she referred to profligates who used ‘rubber things’ instead of having babies. I had no idea what she was talking about. (On the other hand, I remember her saying that she and her fellow sisters had been beside themselves laughing when Audrey Hepburn has her hair cut off with GIANT HEDGE-CLIPPER SHEARS as she takes her vows in The Nun’s Story.)
A part of our religion curriculum that year consisted in her reading to us, over weeks, a book about the appearances of Our Lady of Fátima, to whom Elsa was particularly devoted. You’ll recall that in May through October 1917 Our Lady appeared six times to three young children, Lúcia, Jacinta, and Francisco, who served as shepherds in Portugal.
In the course of her apparitions, the Lady gave Jacinta and Francisco the good/bad news that they would soon be taken up to heaven; Lúcia, by contrast, would remain on earth to spread the word and keep a secret entrusted to her. In fact, Jacinta and Francisco died in the pandemic a century ago, Francisco in 1919, aged ten, and Jacinta in 1920, aged nine. That our class was at just about the age of the children at the time of the apparitions was, of course, no coincidence. Lúcia died at the age of 97 in 2005 as a member (a sister) of the Discalced Carmelites.
There were lessons to be learned, including that The Lady had pledged to help end World War I, and, as Elsa made clear, was fighting the ‘communists’. These lessons were of course offered in terms we children could understand, and I presume looking back that Elsa had voted for Barry Goldwater.
Flash forward forty-seven years and we find me visiting the church of St. Mary of Mt. Carmel in Dunmore, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Scranton). Our Lady of Mount Carmel has been the patron and received the devotion of the Carmelite order since the latter was founded during the crusades in the thirteenth century. Significantly, Our Lady of Fátima had appeared to the children once in the guise of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Now, I went to the Dunmore church to see the Cemetery out back; but on the path leading to the cemetery between the parochial school and the church was a statue group (figure 1).
I hadn’t thought of the Fátima story except in passing in 47 years, but there, in Dunmore, is a statuary group of Our Lady and the three children. Mary, you’ll recall, appeared to the children at first in white with gold trim and held a rosary, and so she is depicted here, the shining marble suited to her shining appearance and the color of her garb, the gold trim suggested by designs on the mantle’s hem (figure 2).
The children, from east to west, are presumably Francisco, Lúcia, and Jacinta, Lúcia taking the pride of place in the center (figure 3). I did not tramp into the flower bed, but I believe the statues of the two girls are the same. The children wear clothing dell’ epoca, the girls with head coverings you can see in a dour 1917 photograph of them in figure 4.
Based upon wear in and around the head of the statue of Mary (figure 5), my thought is that the material is marble and was carved some time ago. The statue is mostly in very low relief, which might suggest it is a plaster cast, but the undercut praying hands militate against such a view. Modern treatments of the Fátima group tend to be horrible in the way modern sculpture is generally; Design Toscano sells a ‘Fátima Grande Scale Sculpture’ here, and it makes the St. Mary of Carmel cutter look like Michelangelo. Compare the Francisco in figure 3 with the leisure-suited monstrosity on offer by The Catholic Company.
The statue sits on a recent red granite plinth with names of dedicatees inscribed upon it. The group must have been rearranged or even moved in the recent past, perhaps for the hundredth anniversary of the appearances in 2017. The buildings of the parish are fairly standard academic gothic, probably not much older than 1917 (figure 6: the doorway is a treat for you for reading this far: check out the wonderful font).
It could be that the statue group goes back to any of the dates of the pronouncements of Roman Catholic prelates on the Fátima apparitions. Pius XII, ordained a priest on the day of the first apparition in 1917, took a special interest. I imagine the group might go back to 1930, when the events were proclaimed ‘worthy of belief’, or 1946, when Pius XII issued a canonical coronation to the Fátima guise of Our Lady. In fact, since the Dunmore image lacks the crown, it might be that we should date it to before 1946.
This is one of those iconographic groups that I never would have dreamt existed, but upon seeing it, made me say “of course, how not?” But a group like this one, in marble and from the days before Design Toscano and others banged ’em out of molds in resin by the dozen is assuredly a wondrous rarity.
I feel blessed and cursed. I am grateful to the universe for giving us the bonbon of the Dunmore Fátima group; but having researched this essay, I am now cursed with a spam flood of web ads for bad modern Catholic art.