By Margie Wuebker
MARIA STEIN -- Sister Barbara Ann Hoying walks slowly along the concrete sidewalk leading to the Statue Garden at the Maria Stein Center, where eight well-known saints stand like quiet sentinels.
She pauses first at the figure of St. Gaspar del Buffalo and then at the pedestal bearing a white fiberglass likeness of St. Catherine of Siena.
"These are the newest additions to our garden," the center director says with a sweeping gesture that takes in ornamental grasses, rosebushes and other plantings leading from one saint to the next.
The Sisters of the Precious Blood, who have called the Maria Stein Center home since establishing a convent there in 1890, originally placed 17 statues at various locations on the grounds situated along St. Johns Road.
They considered relocating some to a central point after selling a wooded area that is now the Marion Township Community Park. Those plans came to fruition in 2001. "St. Gaspar and St. Catherine represent the seventh and eighth stations along the walk," Hoying says. "They hold special significance for members of our order."
Italians by birth, both were inspired in their prayer and in their work by the Precious Blood Jesus Christ shed for salvation of the world, she said.
Pope Paul VI declared St. Catherine a doctor or learned teacher of the church in 1970. The nun, who died in in 1380 at the age of 33, is credited with convincing church hierarchy to designate Rome as the headquarters of the Papacy. Early popes had resided in Avignon, France, prior to that time. Catholics around the world celebrate her feast day on April 29.
St. Gaspar, credited as the founder of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, launched an unrelenting crusade to spread devotions until his death in 1837 at the age of 51. Catholics celebrate his feast day on Oct. 21.
The fiberglass statue, recently cast and shipped from Italy, clearly conveys the priest's religious sentiments. A small crucifix appears in the waistband of his cassock while he holds a larger one.
Other newer acquisitions, like St. Anthony of Padua and St. Michael the Archangel, also were cast in fiberglass, which is considerably cheaper than the marble used in bygone times. Statues moved from elsewhere on the grounds -- St. Therese of Lisieux (the Little Flower), St. Jude Thaddeus (the patron saint of impossible causes) and St. Robert Bellarmine -- originally were fashioned by marble craftsmen.
"St. Theresa used to stand near the former gatehouse but there were no sidewalks to lead the faithful to her," Hoying says. "People may remember kneeling on an iron bench before St. Jude when he stood out in the woods."
Visitors often comment about the elaborate detail incorporated in the statues regardless of their composition. St. Catherine, for instance, holds a bouquet of roses while a sturdy rosary hangs from her waistband. Doves perch in the outstretched hand of St. Francis while others can be seen on his shoulder and at his feet.
Donations from the faithful have made the acquisition of new statues possible and defrayed the cost of stone-faced pedestals as well as the circular sidewalk leading to the courtyard with its Stations of the Cross.
"It is so gratifying to see people walking along the sidewalk and praying before the statues while enjoying the peace, quiet and God's gifts of nature," Hoying says. "This is a place where we want people to come and enjoy the beautiful surroundings as much as we sisters do."
With the Statue Garden now complete, the director hopes to focus efforts on creating an Angel Garden at the top of the gentle slope overlooking the sidewalk.
"We see it as a place to honor all those who went home to God at an early age," she explains. "That includes babies, teenagers and even adults."