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Risen Christ art unique to the Woods

When visitors enter the Church of the Immaculate Conception, they are awestruck by the Renaissance-style design, the fresco paintings and boldly colored stained-glass windows from the Royal Bavarian Art Institute of Munich and by the grand Carrara, Pavonazzo and Numidian marble.

After pilgrims, friends, family and sisters sit down in the pews, however, their attention is quickly drawn towards a simpler, unique risen Christ figure that hangs above the sanctuary. A one-of-a-kind sculpture, the risen Christ was designed in 1989 by the late Harry Breen, noted artist/architect/consultant from Champaign, Illinois.

Unique sculpture

The Christ sculpture is surprisingly lightweight, made of ivory polyester resin. It is affixed to a wooden walnut cross by a single rod from the figure’s foot. The Risen Christ wears a crown of thorns made of iron nails cast together to symbolize Christ’s suffering. The crown is superimposed on a radiant circle (or halo), symbolizing the Trinity and Christ’s triumph over death. Finally, the base beneath the Christ figure is draped with a resin cloth, to remind us of Christ’s rising from the tomb.

According to Harry’s daughter, Melissa Breen, her father, who passed away in 2021, was uniquely touched by his work in the Church.

“He loved working with the sisters and very much appreciated their mission. He loved going to the Woods.” She said that his goal was to create a true representation of the crucifixion and the resurrection combined.

Harry’s son, Paul, helped his father behind the scenes as a “draftsman and a craftsman, in a nuts-and-bolts role.”

Church renovation

The commissioning of this artwork to Breen was done towards the end of the 1986 renovation of the Church. Harry was initially hired during the beginning of the renovation, which included shoring up and replacing the 101-year-old floor, updating painting and dismantling the old high altar to conform to Second Vatican Council liturgical norms.

After the original altar was removed, there was discussion on how to de-emphasize the empty space in the sanctuary by adding a life-sized rendering of a Risen Christ crucifix. Breen submitted a dimensional drawing of the space with “a risen and a human” cross design to the late Sister Nancy Nolan who served as General-Superior at that time.

Designed for the space

Sister Ann Casper, SP, general secretary and councilor at the time, remembers it well. “The figure was designed with the total space of the sanctuary and Church in mind. The piece was meant to add to the total environment of prayer.” She remembers Harry as a gentle man who presented his ideas humbly. “His suggestions were so wonderful. We wanted to respect his opinion and
ideas although they were very different at the time.”

Harry Breen stated in the 1989 issue of the Sisters of Providence Community newpaper, “Creating something for a specific site such as this is very gratifying for me.”

When I do a piece of religious art, I have to consider who the work is for and where it is to be placed. The piece should be expressive of and for that group. I hope this figure expresses the universal truths we hold as Catholic Christians.” (as quoted in the Tribune-Star, March 26, 1989).

Originally published in the Fall 2023 issue of HOPE magazine.

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Diane Weidenbenner

Diane Weidenbenner is the annual fund manager and donor relations for the Sisters of Providence Advancement Services office. She's also a Providence Associate.

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