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11/15/1998
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Angel once again watches over Westport area from Church-top
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Angel once again watches over Westport area from Church-top
By Loretta Shea Kline
Catholic Key Reporter

guardianangel.JPG
Loretta Shea Kline/Key photo
Lucy Urlacher, business manager at Guardian Angels Parish, helps install a 700-pound bronze angel atop the church.
KANSAS CITY - An angel is watching over the Westport neighborhood once again.

Thanks to the efforts of parishioners, staff members, local art patrons and others, an angelic figure is back atop Guardian Angels Church, 1310 Westport Road.

With the help of a crane on a recent gray and chilly November day, a 700-pound angel was hoisted 60 feet in the air and installed by a work crew. The bronze-cast angel replaced a terra cotta sculpture that graced the church for some 75 years. The original, which had fallen into disrepair, was restored and placed inside the sanctuary.

"So many people have driven down Westport Road and missed it," said Margaret Lima, pastoral administrator at Guardian Angels Parish, as she watched the angel make its ascent. "The question was always, 'When is it coming back?'"

The effort to rescue and restore the original began after the Historic Kansas City Foundation placed the angel on its list of the top 20 endangered sculptures in Kansas City. The organization notified the parish of the angel's peril.

"Once you knew it was cracked, you could kind of see it with the naked eye," Lima said.

The parish formed a committee that began discussing what to do about its wounded angel.

"The opinion of the committee was very strong," said parishioner and committee member Bill Shefchik, a geologist. "Things of great beauty are rare, very rare and worth preserving."

The committee sought parish input through bulletin notices, a town hall meeting and a survey. The result was a decision to undertake a fund drive for the restoration.

With contributions from current and former parishioners, neighborhood residents and others, the parish raised more than $44,000 for the angel project. Of the 275 donors, 181 were parishioners.

The angel atop the church serves as a visible sign of the vibrancy of the parish and neighborhood, and is a reminder to all that we are meant to care for one another, Lima said.

"We are called to be messengers of God's love," she said. "We need to be caregivers of each other, as the guardian angel is."

When the original was brought down from its perch and placed in the bed of a truck, a wing broke off.

"Thank God it waited until then," said business manager Lucy Urlacher, who said that the condition of the sculpture was much worse than anyone thought, and that it actually posed a danger.

Shefchik added, "It seemed to us - seeing it up close - that it was very, very close to being lost forever."

Many were also surprised to see that there was a child with the angel, Lima said. The angel's hand rests on the child's shoulder, seemingly keeping the child close in a protective gesture.

While the sculpture is a neighborhood landmark, how it came to be is a mystery, committee members said. So is the identity of the artist.

"That's very odd, because that's not that long ago, 1922 (when the church was built)," said parishioner and committee member Bob Ferguson, a retired airline mechanic. "I was born in 1927."

After much research and consultation with art restoration experts, the decision was made to restore the original sculpture, but not to put it back atop the church. The committee opted for a bronze replica to hold that post. The mold for the bronze angel was made from the original.

"It's basically permanent, so there won't have to be another committee that would have to form 50 years from now," Shefchik said.

The restoration of the sculpture was done by The Jensen Foundation for Art Conservation, Education and Research Inc. in Omaha. The bronze replica was cast at the Heartland Foundry in Lawrence, Kan.

The parish received national recognition for its efforts to replicate the sculpture from the Save Our Outdoor Sculpture! SOS! 2000 program, a joint project of the National Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution and Heritage Preservation. The parish was cited for its "significant efforts to preserve a vital part of our nation's heritage for the next millennium," a letter from the Historic Kansas City Foundation said.

Parishioner George Niewrzel, an architect and member of the committee, said the effort to save the angel has been a positive for the Guardian Angels community.

"It's been a building thing for the parish, building morale and confidence that we can raise funds for things in the parish that are identified as important," Niewrzel said.

Urlacher agreed. "Successful projects lead to other successful projects," she said.

While the 570-member parish has many other needs, preserving the angel proved to be a worthwhile project, Shefchik said.

"Beauty is like sustenance," he said. "It's like water or air.

"There is a lot of ugliness in the world, and here is a little bit of beauty we were able to save. To us, it had a great deal of importance."


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