An Italian marble sculpture of St. Joseph holding baby Jesus that was installed in Bellingham in 1928 has been brought back to the city after a decade-long absence.
The 5-foot-tall statue will soon be on public display at a history exhibit about John Joseph ("J.J.") Donovan, a prominent businessman during early boom times on Bellingham Bay. Donovan bought the statue and had it placed outside of St. Joseph hospital, then on North Forest Street, to honor two of his grandchildren who died young.
Once the exhibit ends, the sculpture will be permanently mounted outside the main entrance at St. Joseph hospital, now at 2901 Squalicum Parkway.
The figure of St. Joseph has some mottling, and baby Jesus has a broken thumb and two missing fingers on his left hand and two broken fingers on his right hand, but otherwise the sculpture made of Carrara marble has held up well considering it has stood outdoors in Northwest weather for 85 years.
"He's still a beautiful statue," said Brian Griffin, the Bellingham author and history researcher who spearheaded the effort to retrieve the sculpture.
Born in 1858 in New Hampshire, J.J. Donovan worked as an engineer for Northern Pacific Railroad before he moved to Fairhaven in 1889 to become chief engineer for Nelson Bennett's coal, railroad and land ventures.
Over time, Donovan became an executive as well as an engineer for several major enterprises, including the Blue Canyon coal mine on Lake Whatcom, several local railroads, and the company that logged the Lake Whatcom area. In 1913 he helped found the massive Bloedel-Donovan Lumber Mills on Lake Whatcom. His death in 1937 warranted a story in The New York Times.
A devout Catholic, Donovan was a major backer of the first St. Joseph hospital, which opened in 1891 on 17th Street, and a larger St. Joseph hospital that opened a decade later on North Forest Street. In 1928 a brick addition to the hospital was erected next-door. That building survives today as South Hill Apartments.
The west side of the hospital fronted on North State Street, a streetcar route. A tunnel from North State enabled people to reach an elevator to rise into the brick addition.
After the sculpture that Donovan commissioned from Ferdinando Palla of Italy arrived by ship in Seattle on Jan. 17, 1928, he had it installed atop an archway over the tunnel entrance. What Donovan paid for the statue isn't known.
The statue remained there until St. Joseph hospital moved to its north Bellingham campus in 1966. The statue's new home was outside a convent behind the hospital.
"They still had a lot of nuns working in the hospital," Griffin explained.
While the marble statue stood near the convent, a different sculpture of St. Joseph, one made of concrete, was placed by the entrance to the new hospital.
When the convent was demolished as part of a 2003 hospital expansion, the marble sculpture, which weighs several hundred pounds, was moved to St. Mary-on-the-Lake, a lakeside retreat and residence in Bellevue for the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.
About two years ago Griffin began working on a video history of Sister Brigid Collins, the Catholic nun who ran St. Joseph hospital during the 1960s. While at St. Mary-on-the-Lake to interview a nun who knew Sister Brigid, Griffin saw the marble statue of St. Joseph on display outdoors.
"I thought, 'I've seen that somewhere before,'" Griffin recalled.
Once he confirmed that it was the same sculpture displayed earlier in Bellingham, he worked to persuade hospital officials to switch the marble St. Joseph for the concrete St. Joseph.
To do that, he took a two-pronged approach. He offered to curate an exhibit about J.J. Donovan, with help from Whatcom Museum photo archivist Jeff Jewell and with the marble sculpture to be part of the exhibit. Museum officials agreed to the idea.
Griffin also encouraged relatives of Donovan to submit letters supporting the return of the sculpture.
Hospital officials agreed to the switch.
"They felt, as I felt, that it was right," Griffin said, "from a historical point of view as well as an emotional point of view."
On Saturday, June 29, Bellingham contractor Dave Scoboria, with co-workers Mark Bryant and Nick Chissus, drove the crated concrete statue to Bellevue and returned with the crated marble statue.
The marble statue had extra protection for its journey, Griffin said. As a safeguard, the statue was draped with a rosary made by 92-year-old Beatrice Ida Janyk of British Columbia, whose son, Robert Janyk, heard about the project while talking to Griffin at Birch Equipment Rental and Sales, where Janyk works.
The Donovan exhibit opens July 28. In the meantime, the marble statue will be cleaned and given a protective clear coating, Griffin said.
At some point, Griffin, who is also a woodworker, plans to carve marble replacements for baby Jesus' missing and broken fingers and thumb.
"Treasures from the Trunk: The Story of J.J. Donovan," an ongoing history exhibit, opens at noon Sunday, July 28, in Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall, 121 Prospect St.
At 1 p.m., an everybodyBIKE ride will depart from Fairhaven Village Green for a two-wheeled tour of historic J.J. Donovan sites. Bikers will arrive at Old City Hall by 3 p.m. to hear a talk by Brian Griffin, the exhibit's curator.
Reach Dean Kahn at email@example.com or call 715-2291.