SALEM, Mass. — Workers digging the foundation of a $20 million apartment complex in downtown Salem made a startling discovery two weeks ago. They found St. Joseph.
The 6-ton statue, which had not been seen for more than 60 years, was discovered where it was long believed buried - under the parking lot of the former St. Joseph Church.
Over the years, the statue's whereabouts, or even existence, had become the stuff of legend. There were no known records or photographs of its location. Even though older parishioners said they saw it placed in the ground and could point out the spot, finding it proved challenging.
A developer associated with the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston promised to record and rebury the statue if it was found during this winter’s demolition of the former church or construction of the four-story affordable housing complex now underway.
The developer used sonar and ground-penetrating radar. Construction workers were cautioned to dig with care. But after several months, nothing was found and even faithful parishioners had all but given up hope. Then it happened, on Friday, May 3.
“It was the very last footing for the foundation” of the new building, said Lisa Alberghini, president of the developer, the Planning Office for Urban Affairs.
The finely detailed statue of a bearded St. Joseph had overlooked Salem in 1911, when it was placed between twin towers of a church built by French-Canadian immigrants. That church burned three years later in a fire that destroyed most of the city. All that remained was the building’s skeleton, which remarkably still included the statue.
The 12-foot sculpture stood high in the church edifice for 30 years, a lone sentry over a ravaged religious site. A crowd turned out to watch it taken down in 1944. Children posed for photos after the statue, wrapped in heavy ropes, was lowered to the ground by a crane. It was buried sometime before the new St. Joseph Church opened in 1950.
After it was recently uncovered, the statue was put back into the earth just as quickly, possibly to avoid reigniting the controversy that dogged this project through years of legal challenges. Construction equipment had moved the statue to what will be the courtyard of the u-shaped apartment complex.
It was reburied in a private ceremony attended by a small group that included the Rev. Lawrence Rondeau, the former pastor of St. Joseph, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, and a handful of church members.
Betty Richard, a longtime parishioner, said the only visible damage was a chipped nose and broken fleur-de-lis in St. Joseph’s hands. “I was so happy I was able to see it,” she said. “It was just amazing it was in one piece.”
Tom Dalton writes for The Salem, Mass., News.