Two years ago, in Queens, N.Y., a 25-year-old man shot the head off a marble statue of St. Anne with a pistol-grip shotgun. With a large machete, he hacked off the hand of a nearby statue of the child Mary. Then he turned the gun on two police officers and, finally, on himself.
In the days that followed the gruesome events, members of St. Anne Roman Catholic Church called on Georgina Ferrandi, 39, to fix the 107-year-old statues. For the job, she made rubber molds and recast a hand and head for the lifesize white pieces.
Parishioners stopped by and blessed themselves with the water she used to repair the marble as it ran down the statues' sides.
Repairing symbols of faith can be a complicated business, demanding not just the ability to work with a variety of materials, but also sensitivity to the strong attachments congregations develop to such icons.
Last month, Michelle Bowman-DuMey worked to get a dozen religious statues ready for Easter in her St. Louis studio. She carefully peeled back layers of old paint to determine the original color of the statue before laying down new paint.
Restorers "often repaint, not realizing the significance of the colors in the original artwork," Bowman-DuMey said. That can result in a coarsening of the face or altering the color of clothing.
Lydia Shalanko, who repairs religious statues in Edwardsville, Ill., said that the fingers, small limbs, and feet of religious statues break most often, but that anything can and does break under the pressure of age, weather or accident. And in repairing the items, a little improvisation can be key: Shalanko recently mended the shoulder of a 90-year-old plaster Jesus using glue typically found in auto-repair shops.
Like Bowman-DuMey, Ferrandi has had to fix previous well-intentioned repairs - like the Band-Aid that kept one statue's finger attached to its hand and the garish eye shadow applied to another statue.
She got her start in Baltimore, where her parents made their living refurbishing churches. While they worked on the structural aspects of buildings, Ferrandi helped with the smaller tasks, like painting toenails on statues of Jesus.
Ferrandi got a master's degree in sculpture at Ohio State University and moved to New York the day before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In their aftermath, she decided to start a business, Saints Alive, to restore and repair religious statues.
On a recent day, marble and plaster limbs were splayed across a white work table in her Brooklyn studio. Eleven statues stood in the two rooms in various stages of repair.
To reinforce a 6-foot-tall cross, Ferrandi layered swatches of wet fiberglass across it. A church had requested that she repaint a gold statue in a light skin tone and depict open wounds on the hands and feet dripping with blood. "He is supposed to be a suffering Jesus," Ferrandi said.
The colors associated with each saint are largely preordained by Catholic tradition, but congregations sometimes have their own variations.
One statue depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Ferrandi's studio has a traditional white robe but with an egg yolk-yellow hue. She will repaint the robe in cream and keep the familiar orange in the robe's shadows.
"It can be tricky because they often have a devotion to what they've been seeing, so sometimes I don't stray too far," Ferrandi said.
One statue propped on Ferrandi's windowsill, a 4-foot-tall Mary, has names scrawled in pencil and pen across its gold base. Haitian worshipers often write names on the statue as a way to ask the saint for a blessing, she said.
On other statues, Ferrandi has found tiny, rolled-up pieces of paper in between the saint's toes, each with a name written on it. She paints over the gold base, then returns the paper prayers when she's finished.
The Rev. Joseph Fonti of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church says Ferrandi's work is invaluable. Dozens of the church's statues were brought to America by the Italian immigrant congregation.
"They brought their devotion and love with these statues," he said. The parishioners keep communion with their past, and with their faith, through the saints, he said.
Ferrandi has done work on six statues that sit in a special shrine room at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where she has spent days cataloging them for future work.
"The molds of yesteryear that made such beautiful and welcoming saints are gone," Fonti said. "We are trying to preserve these pieces of art."