Sculpture reaches out to community

Sandra Campbell smudges the homeless Jesus sculpture.
Sandra Campbell, a member of Church of the Redeemer and the Toronto Urban Native Ministry, smudges the new sculpture during the dedication ceremony.
 on October 30, 2023
Michael Hudson

Artwork a summons to address societal ills, says priest

On one of Toronto’s busiest street corners, near high-end stores and multi-million-dollar condos, a life-sized sculpture of Jesus Christ as a sick person offers passers-by a chance to stop and reflect on their lives and those who are less fortunate than themselves.

The bronze sculpture, called When I Was Sick, was installed outside Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St. in September. It is accompanied by a plaque that reads, “It dwells in this place as a shared calling and a commitment as a church, a city and a world to take care of those who are in need.”

The statue sits on a slab of granite outside the front of the church, just steps away from the sidewalk and the intersection of Bloor Street and Avenue Road. It was dedicated after the Sunday morning service on Sept. 24.

A group photo with Timothy Schmalz (second from left) and the Mercanti family. Parishioners are wearing orange shirts to mark Orange Shirt Day, a day to honour Indigenous children who were sent away to Canada’s Residential Schools.

The artwork was created by Timothy Schmalz, a Canadian sculptor whose provocative works of Jesus Christ have been installed in public spaces worldwide. Mr. Schmalz is best known for his Homeless Jesus statue, which he created in reaction to the many people he saw living on the streets. His statues are installed outside St. Paul, Bloor Street and St. Stephen in-the-Fields in Toronto.

The sculpture outside Redeemer shows a Christ-like figure under a bedsheet, his hand reaching out towards the viewer. His face is partially hidden and his feet and hands have been pierced.

“We’re hoping that when people read the plaque and see the statue, it will serve as a kind of summons,” says Archdeacon Steven Mackison, incumbent. “It can be interpreted in a couple of ways – as someone who is reaching out and entreating us to take care of them because they are in need, and also as Jesus in his own brokenness reaching out to the world, saying, ‘I need you in this ministry, I’m calling you to this ministry.’”

Redeemer has one of the largest outreach ministries in the diocese. The Common Table, a drop-in program of the church, serves about 100 people each day, providing meals, a meeting place, basic health care, toiletries and other necessities. It also uses carts to take food and supplies to people on the streets.

Archdeacon Mackison says the statue reflects the church’s belief that poverty and homelessness are societal ills. “They are a societal sickness that we must all address, and the statue speaks to that.”

The sculpture was donated by the Sam and Roma Mercanti Foundation, a registered charity based in Hamilton. The foundation had put a bronze cast of When I Was Sick in front of St. Joseph’s hospital in Hamilton and wanted to put another cast in a prominent spot in Toronto. (The original statue is located at a hospital in Rome.)

Mr. Schmalz contacted Archdeacon Mackison to see if the church was interested. “They wanted to say something deeper about sickness, and it was completely aligned with our values and with our ministry to the poor and homeless,” explains Archdeacon Mackison. “Many of our guests suffer from addiction or mental illness. There is a misconception that people are homeless because they are lazy or messed up – ignoring the fact that mental health or addiction issues are illnesses. The statue is a reminder of that.”

The blessing and laying-on-of-hands.

The sculpture has drawn praise, he says. “Even before we dedicated it, we got so many comments from members of the Yorkville community – people who’ve passed by and said this is a really meaningful and powerful expression of what we feel we should be doing. Just as importantly have been comments from our own guests of The Common Table who’ve said, ‘It’s as though you put that statue there for us.’”

In addition to the statue, the church plans to install an outdoor mural that depicts its ministry and commitment to Indigenous justice. A project of the parish’s Indigenous Solidarity Working Group, the mural’s panels will be 30 inches high and cover the entire lower west wall of the church. Paintings by Indigenous artist Donald Chretien will be etched on to brushed aluminum.

Archdeacon Mackison is hoping that the mural and the statue will raise awareness, deepen understanding and foster commitment. “It’s really an engagement with the larger community. I hope people will be curious and come to us to ask what those ministries are and why they’re important to us. And I hope that our passion may inspire members of the wider community to be more passionate about those things as well – and they already are.”


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