New crucifix at St. John Vianney inspires parishioners to look to God

Fr. Tim Mazur, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish, and artist Mary Dudek smile as the crucifix Dudek sculpted for the Shelby Township parish is installed March 28. Dudek, a parishioner and recent art graduate from the University of Michigan, said she encountered some opposition to her design from university academics, but is proud of the support she’s received from fellow artists, advisers and the parish.
Photos courtesy of St. John Vianney Parish

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — To see the Father, look to Jesus.

That’s what Fr. Tim Mazur thought when he became pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Shelby Township in 2010.

The church was adorned with a beautiful cross that hung over the altar, but with no corpus on the cross.

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Artist Mary Dudek, left, and Fr. Tim Mazur, right, help steady the crucifix as it is hoisted in the sanctuary.

“When I first came here and noticed there wasn’t a crucifix in the church, it was something I keep to myself because I didn’t want to be the priest who comes in and says, ‘Oh, we need to change everything,’” Fr. Mazur told The Michigan Catholic. “But from talking to people over time, with parishioners and visitors, some were asking why didn’t have a crucifix in the church.”

Fr. Mazur took the issue to the worship commission and began looking around closed parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit for a crucifix they might use.

Finding nothing that caught the eye, St. John Vianney music minister Sarah Dudek knew an artist who could make a crucifix for the parish: her sister.

“I was really excited when I found out they were thinking about me to submit a design,” said Mary Dudek, a 2016 art graduate from the University of Michigan who specializes in sculpting the human figure. “This is my dream for art, using my art education to bring everything to serve God and the Church.”

Dudek drew up sketches of what she envisioned the crucifix to look like, presenting three designs to Fr. Mazur and the worship council.

“Our main focus for this project is bringing out the representational nature of the figure,” Dudek said. “My first idea about this crucifixion is he is alive on the cross. That he is alive looking up to the Father at the moment he says, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’”

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St. John Vianney pastor Fr. Tim Mazur, right, and volunteers help carry the new crucifix into the church.

After Dudek’s initial design was approved by Fr. Mazur and the worship commission, she went forward with hiring a model and finding a space at i3Detroit art studio in Ferndale.

“All this time I was working on the crucifix, I was asking the Lord to send me a model, show me who to ask to bring to the space to do the work, show me the materials, and He has,” Dudek said. “This is not something I could have done on my own. He showed me the workspace and metal shop, and there were people who could help me out from time to time. It was a project that really came through a lot of prayer.”

Dudek received a lot of support from advisers and fellow artists — Christian and non-Christian alike — but she did get a little pushback from the academic establishment at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design.

“I dropped out of a class at the time, it was a contemporary sculpture class and the instructor made it clear that something representational or something depicting Christ was not supported in the class,” Dudek said. “His reasoning was the crucifix wasn’t a relevant form of sculpture to our lives anymore, which I found pretty ironic, since I just was commissioned to do a crucifix.”

Dudek has some helpful critiques of the current state of modern sculpture academia — a story for another time — but she was quick to point out a list of people in the art community who helped her.

“When I was at the University of Michigan, I was studying anatomy and figure sculpture, and that’s where I blossomed as an artist. I had an excellent teacher, Lou Marinaro, who really helped me,” Dudek said. “There is no better way to show God than the figure of his handiwork — the image of God when He became a man in the form of Christ.”

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The new 11-foot-tall, 8-foot-wide wooden crucifix designed by parishioner Mary Dudek hangs in the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Parish in Shelby Township. Dudek said her design is intended to show Jesus’ last breath on the cross, handing over his spirit to the Father.

Dudek took great pains to depict the anatomy of Christ crucified in a manner that shows he is alive on the cross, suffering for the sins of others. For instance, his leg muscles are bulging to show he is using his feet to draw breath, and his nostrils are extended as they would have been when he said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

“One of the words that keeps coming to me when I see models of the crucifix is the sense of ‘surrender,’” Fr. Mazur said. “Jesus surrendering himself to the will of the Father.”

The 6-foot-3 fiberglass figure — hand-painted by Dudek on an 11-foot tall, 8-foot wide cross — was delivered just before the start of Holy Week. In celebrating the Passion of Christ, the crucifix quickly became a visual representation to convey something that for many, is difficult to comprehend using only words: the faithful looking to God, through looking at Christ, crucified on the cross.

“The visual arts are a chance to teach the faith,” Dudek said. “When you do the representational figure, you’re pursuing truth. You’re showing God through the human form when you’re depicting the crucifix. The crucifix is a chance to teach theology on a level where people might not understand it. They can experience it through the art itself.”