October 01, 2020

The plight of migrants and refugees is now represented on the Catholic University campus, thanks to a newly unveiled sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. The three and a half-ton bronze sculpture made its campus debut during a small in-person ceremony that was also live-streamed on Sept. 26. 

Angels Unawares depicts more than 140 refugees tightly packed onto a 20-foot skiff. Some look back, but most look forward with hope toward the future and a new life. Parents hold tired, scared children who clutch their pets and stuffed animals. Look more closely, and you will find the holy family stands among these migrants from across history. And, in the center, a pair of angel wings rises from the crowd.

Schmalz, who gained global recognition with his earlier work, Homeless Jesus, was commissioned by Pope Francis to call attention to the lives of migrants and refugees and their many contributions to society. Drawing inspiration from Hebrews 13:2 — “Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unawares” — Schmalz worked long hours for more than a year to carve the first casting, which was installed in St. Peter’s Square on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Sept. 29, 2019. 

“I remember sculpting and thinking, ‘I’m the hands of Pope Francis right now. What would he want me to do?’ He would want me to show the drama and the hard-fought reality of migrants today,” says Schmalz. 

Schmalz carved 140 different figures to echo the 140 saint statues on the colonnades of St. Peter’s Square. The end result, he says, is “a sculpture garden within one sculpture” that shares a powerful message about the human experience of migration. 

“I can’t help but think of Martin Luther King’s quote: ‘We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now,’” Schmalz says. “In this culture where people are really scrutinizing statues, this is a statue of love and acceptance for all. The message is larger than even the migrant and refugee experience, to show that we are all sacred throughout every single nation, religion, and race, and that we’re all on this same boat together.” 

This second casting, which was gifted to the University by Schmalz and an anonymous patron, will be permanently installed between Father O’Connell and Gibbons halls next year. 

Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, University chancellor, blessed the sculpture during the unveiling ceremony.  

“The World Day of Migrants and Refugees is a call to each of us to provide personally for the care of migrants and refugees through our prayers, charitable works, and advocacy with and on behalf of our brothers and sisters,” Archbishop Gregory said. “Given the significance of this day, it is so fitting that we are gathered here together to bless this statue.”

Junior Brayan Hernandez, a double major in politics and education studies, spoke during the ceremony about his experience as a refugee coming to the United States from El Salvador. Hernandez came to the U.S. when he was nine years old to escape the violence of his home country and reunite with his parents, whom he had not seen in six years. 

“My personal experiences are not unique at all. They are the experiences of many who seek to achieve a goal: the goal of one day being reunited with their families, of not having to worry about the limitations of poverty, of being able to provide for their families, of not being persecuted, and of one day being able to give the children the opportunities that were denied to them in order to create a better tomorrow,” Hernandez said. 

Angels Unawares helps us to understand that this universal goal ... has been with us for centuries. It is a reminder that our love for our brothers and sisters holds no prejudices and that our respectful treatment for immigrants is interconnected with God’s divinity.”

University President John Garvey also spoke at the ceremony and said the sculpture will serve “as a constant reminder to make space in our hearts, in our thoughts, and in our actions for the immigrant, the refugee, and the homeless.” 

“As a Catholic university, we’re committed to the cause of immigrants, refugees, and displaced people, not simply because it makes us feel good, or it’s the right political stance, but because we find Christ in them,” he said. “I’m grateful to all who made today a possibility, and for the gift to us of Angels Unawares.”

Additional speakers during the event included Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States of America, and Sandra Barrueco, director of Latin American and Latino Studies.

Angels Unawares will reside at its temporary campus location until it embarks on a North American tour. The tour is still being organized, but at this time, there are planned stops in Boston, Mass.; South Bend, Ind.; and San Antonio, Texas. At the conclusion of the tour, the sculpture will be permanently installed on campus. The University is raising funds to construct a plaza that will provide a fitting setting for the sculpture, complete with a reflecting pool, seating, and a placard sharing the statue’s history. For more information, visit engage.catholic.edu/stories/angels-unawares-journey-catholic-university.