Artist casts his own hands in restoration of Wisconsin parish’s statue

St. Teresa of Avila once said, “Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands but yours.”

Bruce Nufer, a retired art teacher from Menasha, Wisconsin, who restores religious statues, took the second part of the metaphor literally.

On June 16, Nufer, a member of St. Mary Parish in Menasha, completed a restoration project on a life-size statue of Jesus outside of SS. Peter and Paul Church in Institute. The statue’s hands were damaged and Nufer had to make concrete castings of his own hands to replace the ones he removed.

Bruce Nufer, a member of St. Mary Parish in Menasha, Wis., stands outside SS. Peter and Paul Church in Institute, Wis., June 16, 2021, holding the two concrete hands he created to replace the hands on a life-size statue of Jesus that vandals damaged. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass)

“Apparently some vandals knocked off all of the fingers on the statue, leaving it looking damaged and awkward,” Nufer told The Compass, newspaper of the Green Bay Diocese, prior to making the 90-mile trip to the church.

“This job is unlike any restoration I’ve attempted before,” he said. “Probably my biggest challenge was casting a new pair of hands for the statue. That’s not something I do every day. Fortunately, my own hands were a close match in size, so that was a good start.”

The most difficult part of creating new hands for the statue was pouring the concrete.

“I bought a foamlike casting material, but concrete doesn’t pour that well into a mold with features like this,” Nufer said. “I probably cast six sets of hands (to create) the right consistency so that the new hands would have enough details and enough strength.”

The pandemic also complicated the project, delaying work for more than a year, said Al Birnschein, finance chairperson at SS. Peter and Paul Parish.

When the parish began plans to restore the statue, Birnschein said, someone told him about Nufer.

Removing what remained of the statue’s fingerless hands took longer than Nufer expected.

“I was somewhat surprised to find that the remnants of the old hands were made of a combination of aluminum, brass and concrete,” he said. “That’s a pretty unusual combination. Cutting off the hands turned out to be much harder than I anticipated.”

He used a cordless reciprocating saw and a circular saw to cut through the metal and concrete. Nufer then used an electric drill with a concrete bit to drill a 3-inch-deep hole into both wrists, which would be used to attach the new concrete hands.

Birnschein said the parish plans to clean and repaint the statue.

SS. Peter and Paul Parish was established in 1883 and a new church building was completed in the summer of 1885. An electrical fire destroyed the original church Oct. 19, 1930, and the current church was dedicated on Labor Day 1931. Birnschein is unsure when the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was erected.

Nufer said he hopes the parish will like the restoration work.

“I find a lot of satisfaction knowing I’ve done something that parishioners and clergy will be glad to see back in place in close-to-new condition,” Nufer said. “A lot of these pieces have been a presence in the lives of the congregation for many decades and outright replacements not only cost many times what I charge, but lack the sentimental value. It’s a good feeling to know I’ve been able to help restore a bit of religious history.”

Hands down, Nufer added, it was the most unusual restoration project he has undertaken

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