“This old baptismal font isn’t working well for us anymore.”
Once again, I found myself at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in downtown Spokane Washington, “making marble great again,” as Father Connall jokingly proclaimed. As major renovations were already underway, the need to move the existing baptismal naturally led into the conversation of altering it to fit the church’s modern requirements and updated decor. Nothing too extreme, just carving out the bowl, going from a two-compartment “sink style” to a single larger and deeper one. And of course, the prerequisite cleaning and restoration of the decades of dirt, stains and scratches from all those years of service, dunkin’ babies and whatnot.
The bowl itself had an attached marble lid, which opened and closed using a large swivel pin, no longer wanted as part of the design. Removing it would not be a problem. However, on top sat a statue of Saint John the Baptist that was quite dear to Father Connall.
The statue was to be removed, restored, and given a new home somewhere in the Cathedral. But where?
As the other renovations, the new altar, stairs, pews and carpet concluded within the church, the freshly restored baptismal found its way back from our shop to its new location near the public entry.
Based on this location, I proposed a semi-circle partition of marble for John to sit on, circling the font with integrated niches containing the ornate glass jars of holy oils. Unfortunately, the concept didn’t get any traction due to the continued and valid concerns of potential vandalism that could occur.
Instead, Father Connall suggested a type of wall shelf, wanting to have the statue elevated, and he had the perfect spot in mind. A high-visibility area near the entry, yet still near the baptismal font.
With that, I put on my designer hat and started working on a concept that met the functional criteria yet looked as if it were an original piece of the church and not a contemporary “add-on.”
I won’t lie, I found the inspiration for it in about three seconds, Googling “recessed wall niche” on the prestigious and glamorous site of high-end design, Home Depot.
With the example I proposed, the shell motif had liturgical significance with the baptism ritual, according to Father Connall. Imagining John replacing Aphrodite occupying the printed illustration was the only mental obstacle, so there wasn’t much design back and forth. Just some CAD manipulation of the dimensions, making it fit the space and the statue, and we were in business.
Unlike the Bianco Carrara marble we used at the front altar, the existing baptismal was created from white marble with minimal veining. We provided stone from another Italian quarry a few miles south of Carrara, Bianco Altissimo, as a suitable match.
An 8″ thick slab was machined through several CNC processes, resulting in a semi-finished piece finessed to life with a sculptor’s hand. (I know a guy.)
Once I refined the details, polishing began. Sanding the marble and my fingers down to the bone left me with a glistening piece of holy stonework ready for installation.
Our installers had the unpleasant task of pocketing a recessed cavity into the brick and plaster wall to accommodate the niche. Care was taken to tent the area air-tight, working with multiple vacuums to ensure not a speck of dust escaped into the Cathedral.
With the niche now installed in its permanent place, St. John has officially retired, spending eternity gazing from the vantage of his new estate, a front-row seat witnessing the rebirth of the next generation of faithful Catholics in this beautiful and historic Cathedral.