Newly-painted statue reflects Black community

Before and after photos of restoration work performed by Neal Sullivan, a member of St. Joseph Church in Butchertown, who finished in late October. The weathered statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary stands in an alcove on the northeast side of Christ the King Church located between the Shawnee and Chickasaw neighborhoods in the west end. (Photos Special to The Record)

A newly painted statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary — depicted as a brown-skinned woman — has brightened the campus of the nearly 100-year-old Christ the King Church located between the west end’s Shawnee and Chickasaw neighborhoods.

The statue — which was weathered and covered in flakes of peeling paint — was re-painted in late October.

The restoration was done by Neal Sullivan, a member of St. Joseph Church in Butchertown.

Sullivan moved to Louisville from South Bend, Ind., in 2020 during the civil unrest brought on by the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville Metro Police.

“I was an outsider looking in without preconceived notions of the social justice issues in the city, but I saw the divide,” he said.

Sullivan said he wanted to encounter African American Catholics, develop friendships and contribute to “racial healing and understanding,” but wasn’t certain how to go about doing that.

Neal Sullivan, scraped peeling paint off a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the grounds of Christ the King Church in late October. Sullivan who was visiting the parish last fall volunteered to paint the statue. (Photo Special to The Record)

A conversation with Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre last year helped him better understand how to do this, he noted. The archbishop told him that an “encounter” is required for racial healing; an “ ‘encounter leads to understanding and understanding leads to healing,’ ” Sullivan said the archbishop told him.

The archbishop’s encouragement, along with Pope Francis’ message for Catholics to “go forward,” inspired him to seek friendships in the African American Catholic community.

He began by visiting different African American parishes for worship. He was visiting Christ the King when he came across the statue and was saddened by its weathered condition, he said.

“I’m looking at her and I hear my mom’s voice saying ‘Fix that. That’s unacceptable,’ ” said Sullivan, who noted he grew up in a large Irish Catholic family.

Sullivan asked for permission to work on the statue, though he said that’s not his line of work. He received permission from Father Christopher Rhodes, pastor of Christ the King, he said. Sullivan’s work included scraping, priming and painting the statue.

He wanted the statue to represent the community and the church, so he decided to use a darker color paint for the skin tone.

The restoration of the statue couldn’t have come at a better time, said Robert Frazier, a long-time member of Christ the King. The parish, which serves the African American community, will celebrate its centenary in four years.

The work done on the statue has “so much spiritual meaning and great legacy as Christ the King is nearing its 100th birthday,” Frazier said.

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