As some people headed to the polls Tuesday, I left the office to see Jesus.
My destination over the lunch hour took a couple of co-workers by surprise. “You’re going where?” one asked.
“I’m going to see Jesus,” I said as I walked out the door and headed to the city’s west side.
Outside St. James the Greater Catholic Church, I found Jesus sitting alone at a concrete table, breaking bread as the snow fell. There were 12 empty seats around the table — one for each of his disciples.
I didn’t know it until later in the day, but the Rev. Tom Krieg, pastor at St. James, saw me standing outside, staring at the life-size Christ made of bronze.
He had sent me an email about the sculpture — “The Last Supper” — before Easter and mentioned there was a story behind it. Intrigued, I wanted to see it for myself.
I wasn’t the first to visit the sculpture. It was unveiled five days earlier on Maundy Thursday, the day that commemorates Jesus’ final meal with his disciples before the Crucifixion, and Krieg is hoping I’m not the last.
“I hope all types of folks — from the devoted to the curious — come and seek an encounter of some kind with Christ at the sculpture,” Krieg said by email Tuesday — after he went to the polls to vote. “Christ himself welcomed all sorts of people, as we know.”
And to some, he seemed to have a hand in the sculpture coming to St. James.
Planting the seeds
Several years ago, Krieg was walking at night in a downtown Chicago neighborhood, and he saw a lit statue of a hooded beggar holding out his hand.
“It really pulled me in,” Krieg said. “After looking at it for a while, I noticed his outstretched hand and a hole in it. Jesus.”
The priest then saw a sign with the sculpture’s title, “Whatsoever You Do,” by Timothy P. Schmalz, a Canadian sculptor. Having a pen, Krieg scribbled down the information, and when he got home, he looked it up and found photos of the sculpture and many others, including “The Last Supper,” which he saved.
Last May Krieg had dinner with Dick and Mary Piltz, a couple from St. James, “who were pondering the future and wanting to leave something behind, so that after they die, something inspiring would remain,” Krieg said.
“By happy coincidence, a couple of days after that dinner, I needed to clear my iPhone of photos to create more storage space,” Krieg recalled. “In that process, I came across the saved photo of ‘The Last Supper’ sculpture. (I remember thinking), ‘I wonder if they’d go for that?’”
Dick and Mary did. So, Krieg set off to make it happen with the help of Wayne Ripienski. “I told him about the project, and he basically took it on and saw it through,” Krieg said. “He’s awesome.”
Once the sculpture of Jesus was secured, they needed to find someone to create the table and seating. Initially, Krieg and Ripienski were hoping to have them made out of limestone, but they also got some samples from Buesser Concrete in Lake Hallie.
Dick and Mary Piltz “thought it looked good and really liked the idea of having a local company provide the material since they (are) local business people themselves,” Krieg said. (Dick founded Piltz Glass in 1976.)
“We got the concrete poured before winter, barely, and Jesus arrived in January, and we held onto him in Ryan Buesser’s garage until Holy Week with the goal of dedicating it on Holy Thursday,” Krieg said.
They did, and Dick and Mary Piltz, along with their family, were there for the unveiling.
“It was better than I thought they could make it,” said Dick Piltz, who has a replica at home. “Our whole family thought it was just great, and we hope people enjoy it.”
Once the snow melts, people will see two concrete paths into the sculpture area, and Krieg hopes they convey the message to come, approach and even sit at the table with Christ — either in prayer, eating lunch or visiting with friends and family.
“I think people will naturally use the space according to their own spiritual inclinations,” the priest said. “Some people relate mainly to Christ’s divinity, and they might not feel comfortable eating or chatting at the table and would instead be most inclined to quiet prayer there.
“Others have a strong belief that Jesus is their friend and would feel very natural in his presence doing an everyday thing like reading a book or eating in his presence.”
In the short time the sculpture has been in place, Krieg has found himself at the table more than once and has had different reactions each time. That’s the point.
“The sculpture is evocative,” he said. “Mainly what (we) want is to facilitate an encounter with Christ.”
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