MONROE — A story of loss is being transformed into one of celebration for St. Mary of the Valley Catholic Church.
The church’s historic bell, stolen, then broken up by the thieves for scrap, is being worked into a sculpture that will be unveiled Sunday at the church’s centennial celebration.
Also known as Santa Maria del Valle, the bilingual Catholic parish has seen many changes in its 100 years. It had its beginnings as a mission. Since then, St. Mary has had 22 resident pastors, been housed in several buildings and has ministered to the Skykomish River valley farming community, to prisoners of the Monroe Correctional Complex and more recently to the growing Hispanic community of Monroe.
The church, with 800 families on its registry, also has been in the news a few times during the past two years.
Just this month, a $750 heart defibrillator was stolen from the church building. In the fall of 2011, a ceramic garden statue of the Virgin Mary was taken. Then the clapper of church’s brass bell disappeared. Finally, the antique bell, itself, was carted away by thieves. Parishioners were heartbroken to learn that the stolen bell was busted up and sold to a scrap metal recycler.
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Earlier this year, Marysville-area sculptor Mark Walker went to the Monroe Police Station to pick up the recovered pieces of the heavy 100-year-old bell.
Walker, who teaches in the art department at Mountlake Terrace High School, had been commissioned by the parish of St. Mary of the Valley to use the broken pieces of the bell to make a sculpture honoring the church’s centennial.
The idea was that the bell pieces would be melted down for a statue.
The brass bell was cast in 1913 by Stuckstede Bell Foundry in St. Louis, Mo. In Latin, the bell’s inscription honored St. Anthony with the motto, translated, “A voice crieth: in the wilderness clear a way for the Lord.”
The sad, destructive manner in which the bell was broken set the stage for Walker’s idea of what to create, ultimately leading him to a Madonna and child fashioned after paintings from the 16th century, he said.
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Around 1900, the Catholic pioneers of Monroe were few, so a priest based in Snohomish made the trip to Monroe once a month to celebrate Mass.
St. Mary Catholic Church celebrated its first baptism and a first communion in 1913.
Over the years, clerical visitors to the church have included Bishop E.J. O’Dea, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and Archbishop Thomas Murphy.
The last Mass celebrated at the church’s former building on Madison Street was in April 1978. The current church building on Columbia Street was completed and dedicated in 1979.
Rita Crowley Barr married into a dairy farm family and moved to Monroe in 1955. She has been a member of St. Mary of the Valley for 58 years, having raised her seven children in the church. Barr, 83, has served as church historian for many years and she still sings in the choir.
“I believe our church has played an important role in the life of the Sky Valley,” Barr said. “With our younger Hispanic families, we have more of an emphasis on our youth. It’s a change for the better. Our church is more alive now than it has been in years.”
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Walker, 57, likes challenges, and that’s what the church centennial sculpture was as he approached the commission.
“The bell wasn’t just brass,” Walker said. “It had lead, zinc, arsenic and other contaminants. I couldn’t melt it down without it causing problems with the sculpture’s molds.
“Instead I incorporated images of the broken bell pieces in the base of the sculpture.”
From this base of destruction, as Walker calls it, grows the image of Mary and Jesus.
After designing the artwork, the sculpture was modeled in clay, with Walker toiling weeks to get the details just right.
Then he sprayed on rubber to form a mold. Using the process of lost-wax casting, he poured melted wax into the rubber mold to make a thick, hollow wax copy of the clay model. The wax copy was given a ceramic shell, placed upside down in a kiln and heated to harden it and cause the wax to melt and run out. That’s the lost-wax part. The wax is then replaced with molten metal.
He’s spent his commission of $2,500 on materials and casting.
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Sister Barbara Geib, 80, has spent most of her 60 years as a nun serving at St. Mary of the Valley. She’s been a teacher, the coordinator of religious education and a chaplain for the Monroe police and fire departments.
After the 1913 bell was stolen two years ago, the church raised money to buy another old bell. People were very generous, Geib said. An Eagle Scout built a 16-foot bell tower and the replacement bell was installed there.
On Sundays, the bell calls people to worship, to pray and to enter the sacred place they call St. Mary of the Valley Catholic Church, Geib said.
Earlier this week the nun said she is eager to see the unveiling of Walker’s centennial sculpture as well as the release of 100 white doves after the celebratory Mass on Sunday.
The back of the sculpture celebrates the valley where the church is located, Walker said. The back side of Mary’s halo becomes a rising sun over the forest-covered mountains. Her elbow becomes the river as it falls to the valley floor.
“Oh, cool,” Geib said after hearing a description of the sculpture. “I can’t wait to see it. It’s going to be a lovely day.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; email@example.com.
St, Mary of the Valley Centennial Celebration on Sunday:
11 a.m. Mass in English and in Spanish followed by the blessing of the renovated kitchen and hall, and the centennial sculpture and memorial tiles near the bell tower, as well as the release of 100 white doves and 100 tolls of the new bell.
The celebration continues with a potluck picnic and activities for children.
The church is located at 601 W. Columbia St.
More information is at www.stmaryvalley.org.
More about sculptor Mark Walker is at closer2thebone.com.