February 18, 2008
By Jo-Ann Johnston
SLU Staff Writer
Because of the caring hands and heart of a retiree, five tattered and worn religious statues at Saint Leo University’s main campus have been restored to immaculate condition.
“This is the first time I’ve done on-site repair,' said 71-year-old Donald Webster, a self-trained handyman who makes an avocation of repairing damaged or worn statues for Catholics. Frequently, he finds cases where older and damaged art has sentimental value to the owner because it was a gift from a family member or was tied to a special occasion. Instead of accepting payment, Webster asks the owners of the art to review his repairs upon completion, and only then, if they are satisfied, to make a donation in the amount of their choosing to their local parish. “Hopefully,' he said modestly, “I’ve made a few people happy.'
Saint Leo University is more than satisfied with the restorative and protective work Webster has performed on the white-painted statues, all of which are subject to Florida’s humid climate, said Frank Mezzanini, vice president of business affairs. “They’ll be in great condition for years.'
Saint Leo was lucky to discover Webster, whom Mezzanini found through local Catholic contacts. Webster said he has never run across anyone else who fixes up damaged religious statues – at least in his hometown in upstate New York or at his winter home in Zephyrhills, about 15 miles from the campus. His services were particularly needed at the campus. SLU would not have been able to replace its worn concrete pieces, each of which stands about five feet high, because suppliers no longer make statues of less well-known saints in certain postures.
In fact, none of the campus statues bear any nameplates, and SLU had to confer with University archivist Sister Dorothy Neuhofer to refresh our institutional memory of two of the male figures. Sister Dorothy’s research determined the male figure standing at the right, near the entrance to St. Edward’s Hall, is St. Edward the Confessor, and that the chapel he is holding is a symbol of work rebuilding England’s Westminster Abbey Church. Opposite St. Edward stands St. Benedict of Nursia, who founded the western monastic tradition and for whom the Benedictine order is named. The saint holds a cup, which Sister Dorothy considers a reference to the legend that St. Benedict survived an assassination attempt during which his enemies tainted his drink with poison.
The other works are more readily recognizable among lay Catholics. A statue depicting Michael the Archangel, the protector, stands at the far west end of the campus. A statue of the Madonna and Child is positioned in an alcove of an outdoor stairway on the second floor of St. Francis Hall. A representation of Our Lady of Fatima stands in a high-profile spot next to the outdoor steps of the busy St. Edward Hall.
Webster worked methodically on the figures over two winter seasons in 2006-07 and 2007-08, as weather and time permitted. He finished in early February, just before the start of Lent.
The university has directed a donation from employee Kevan Griggs, specifically made for the restoration work, to Saint Leo Abbey. Griggs, who works in SLU’s Distance Learning operation, said mending the statues reflects one of the university’s core values: responsible stewardship of our resources.
Webster is tackling other projects, always with the quiet inspiration, he said, of his chosen patron, Saint Joseph, the craftsmen, and the husband of Mary.
“He calls me the kid,' Webster said, “because I’m younger than he is.'
This story was updated with new reporting on March 4, 2008.