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Icon graces new NZ shrine

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Cardinal John Dew of Wellington rededicates St Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington as a national Shrine to Mary. Photo: Supplied
Cardinal John Dew of Wellington rededicates St Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington as a national Shrine to Mary. Photo: Supplied

Art serving faith: out of an earthquake’s rubble has come restoration and beautiful new creations of faith

New Zealand’s Catholics have been blessed with the country’s first national Marian Shrine, thanks to a unique icon bringing together the country’s Māori and Pākehā [European] heritage.

The icon, Ko Hata Maria, te Matua Wahine o te Atua [Holy Mary, Mother of God], was painted by 29-year-old artist and restorer Damien Walker.

Mr Walker spoke to The Catholic Weekly from his workshop, the Studio of St Philomena, where he has been restoring Catholic artwork and statuary since the Christchurch earthquake in 2011.

“It was amazing because it gave me the opportunity to know how they made them, all the different French and Italian plasters. Incredible.”

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The young artist intended to take up a trade after high school, but his life changed when priests began bringing him “bags of rubble” in the wake of the earthquake.

“It was crazy, they were coming in hundreds of pieces and we were putting them back together,” he said.

“It was amazing because it gave me the opportunity to know how they made them, all the different French and Italian plasters. Incredible.”

He has since trained with church restorers in Europe and diversified into full Church fits-outs, including painting, gilding, gold-leafing.

The new Marian icon by Damien Walker brings together cultures and symbols in artistically creative new ways. Photo: Supplied
The new Marian icon by Damien Walker brings together cultures and symbols in artistically creative new ways. Photo: Supplied

In 2019 he purchased five shipping containers full of statue moulds from Melbourne.

“Anything a Church needs, we do. I’m a one man band (with help from my Dad),” he joked.

Mr Walker was inspired by the history of New Zealand’s first Catholic Bishop, Jean-Baptiste Pompallier, who dedicated the country to Mary, Assumed into Heaven, at his first Mass in January 1838.

But the icon also draws heavily on the country’s Māori heritage, which required intensive consultation with advisers and “full immersion” into Māori culture.

“Do you bring war or do you bring peace … Are you welcome, or are you going to bring war to Christ?”

“She’s an image for NZ – she’s half Māori, half Pakeha – she’s calling everyone to Christ,” Mr Walker said.

The icon depicts Mary in the stance of a karanga, similar to a Welcome to Country, in which women would go out ahead of their tribe to call out to neighbours and discern their intentions.

“Our Lady is calling, challenging – she eyeballs you 100 per cent. She’s challenging the viewer: ‘Do you bring war or do you bring peace to my child? Are you welcome, or are you going to bring war to Christ?’” Mr Walker explained.

She is also armed with a patu, a greenstone club, alongside a set of rosary beads to symbolise the power of prayer.

Damian Walker works on restoring stained glass to give it a new lease of life for generations to come. Photo: Supplied
Damian Walker works on restoring stained glass to give it a new lease of life for generations to come. Photo: Supplied

Around the icon are four spectral figures, representing the evangelists, in the style of Māori carvings on the marae – the sacred meeting house.

In the past, marae carvings were thought to be demonic and were defaced by Christians, but for Māoris they represent ancestors and members of the family.

Including them on the icon is a sign of renewed understanding, and a sign that “the Holy Spirit illuminates the marae, the House of God”.

The icon toured New Zealand for a year on a hīkoi [pilgrimage or procession], which did much to lift Catholics’ spirits after the country’s strict COVID-19 protocols.

“St Mary of the Angels is already a sacred place and has been for 100 years. Now this icon of Mary Mother of God Assumed into Heaven is here …”

She was installed at St Mary of the Angels, Wellington, in August on the Feast of the Assumption.

The Church was rededicated as a National Shrine to Mary for New Zealand by Cardinal John Dew.

‘Sacred sites all over the world are visited by thousands,” Cardinal Dew said in his homily.

“St Mary of the Angels is already a sacred place and has been for 100 years. Now this icon of Mary Mother of God Assumed into Heaven is here permanently. We hope and pray in time this becomes one of those sacred sites.”

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