Fr. Tony Dittmer spent his summer overseeing a remodeling of St. Hyacinth Church in La Salle. He helped scrape the floors. He thought he was finished.
Not quite. A few weeks after the contractors packed up their gear, the pastor of the La Salle Catholic Parishes got a surprise call. Jerry Prokuski had an angel statue in his Mendota floral shop. The angel had once belonged to St. Hyacinth’s. Would Dittmer like to have it back?
Dittmer gratefully accepted Prokuski’s offer and then learned there was a companion statue that had flanked the other side of the high altar. Where was the twin? Dittmer made a few calls, got nowhere and then prayed with St. Anthony of Padua, the finder of lost things.
“Sure enough, St. Anthony did his work,” Dittmer said. “The angels, which had been there since 1910, have now come back home. They are now standing there holding vigil before the presence of Jesus Christ.
“It’s a wonderful story.”
And a rather intricate story, at that.
The angels had long ago been fabricated by Daprato Rigali Studios — the faded etchings suggest 1911 — and placed in St. Hyacinth’s. When the church underwent a major renovation in the years following Vatican II (1962-1965), the two angels wound up in private hands.
Prokuski, a lifelong angel collector, remembered being alerted when St. Hyacinth’s then-pastor left the unwanted statuary and altar pieces outside for the taking. Never one to pass up a free angel, Prokuski recruited a few hands to help him take it away. Four men were needed to heft it into his vehicle, an unmarked white van.
Prokuski gave the statue a name: Consuela. Perhaps unhappy at being moved, Consuela’s first act was to get Prokuski pulled over on the ride home to Mendota. A patrol officer stopped the van and demanded to search it.
“They were looking for a plain white van apparently carrying dope,” Prokuski recalled. He was let go without charges, but not before the cop rapped the statue with his knuckles to make sure Prokuski hadn’t hollowed it out to conceal narcotics.
Consuela sat in Jerry’s Flower Barn until earlier this summer. Asked why he relinquished it, Prokuski said felt something of a heavenly tug to return Consuela to her home church, which he’d heard was getting spruced up.
Dittmer had, in fact, procured enough funds to pay for a facelift — a task he threw himself into with gusto. He’d never much cared for the black stone altar pieces and wished aloud, only half-jokingly, for a fire to incinerate the hated orange carpet.
But the last thing Dittmer expected was for the summer-long project to be crowned with a 105-year-old angel statue that had disappeared before he was born.
“I thought he was going to have a heart attack,” Prokuski said of Dittmer’s reaction. “I picked up his mouth from the floor.”
Dittmer inspected Consuela and was delighted to find the statue intact and in need of only minor repairs, as the angel wings were nicked at the edges.
As he headed out the door, Prokuski stopped and turned to Dittmer.
“You know, there was another angel there,” he said, indicating the altar. “Somebody else has it. You need to ask around.”
A few longtime parishioners told Dittmer they did recall seeing Consuela’s missing twin at the former Trout’s Craft Shop in Peru. The store owner, Catherine “Lucille” Trout, had died in 1998 and the angel was sold at her estate sale. Who had it now? Nobody knew.
Then, two weeks ago, Dittmer was eating his lunch at the church rectory when his doorbell rang. It was Michele Waters of Dimmick, accompanied by her mom, Shirley Bernard.
“Father, we need to talk,” Waters told him.
“I have to admit,” Dittmer said, “my first response was, ‘Uh-oh.’”
But the women weren’t angry, they were emotional. Michele had the second statue and she wanted to donate it back in honor of her recently-deceased father.
As a child, Waters underwent frequent blood draws at an office not far Trout’s shop. Each time she passed the angel statue she uttered a prayer and came to think of the angel as her guardian. When the statue became available at Trout’s estate sale, Waters snatched it up. It would remain one of her most prized possessions.
But Waters never quite shed the notion that the angel belonged in church. Over the years she approached St. Hyacinth’s pastors about donating back the statute; but for one reason or another, the statue never changed hands. Then in May, Waters buried her father, Robert Bernard Sr.
“I wanted to do something to honor him that would last a long, long time,” Waters said. When Dittmer eagerly accepted, Waters intuitively understood why her previous offers had been declined. “I guess the timing had to be perfect, and it was.”
It was a satisfying moment for Waters to see the two statues reunited on the altar.
“They look perfect,” she said, “like they were waiting to be put there.”
Perfect, that is, except for some peeling paint and other marks left by Father Time. Dittmer said he put the angels on display to show parishioners how speedily their prayers were answered, but he’s already made arrangements to restore the statues to their original glory.
Figuring out whom to call was a breeze: Beneath the statues were markings showing they’d come from Daprato Rigali Studios of Chicago, still in business. Dittmer placed a call and Daprato dispatched workers to inspect the statues, take photos and get him a quote. An estimate is forthcoming.
Though both statues were donated free, Dittmer is seeking donations for the potentially costly restoration, which includes reattaching the wings to Waters’ statue. Waters had removed them, intact, because the wingspan took up too much space in her home. Dittmer admitted he was floored by the entire turn of events. On the other hand, his surprise has been tempered by an almost disquieting realization: The angel statues turned up during a holy year.
Pope Francis had declared an extraordinary jubilee, the Year of Mercy, starting shortly before last Christmas and ending after this Thanksgiving. The angels’ return no longer seems coincidental.
“What a beautiful gift from God during this Year of Mercy,” Dittmer marveled.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NT_Court.