The stone structures sheltering scenes of Christ's final hours of human life are part of a Catholic tradition of devotion called the Stations of the Cross (or Way of the Cross). Each of the Stations describes a scene from the passion, death, or resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Station rock structures were built about 1940. However, new sculptures were created by the artist R.D. Robinson and installed April, 1989. Cast in cultured alabaster, the scenes are meant to speak to people personally as they journey with Christ from station to station.
The invitation, then, is to notice the details, place yourself in the scene, enter into the event, being open to the unique message that is meant for you.
To learn more about the Stations of the Cross devotion, please visit this Stations of the Cross web page.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STATIONS OF THE CROSS SCULPTURE
From the earliest of times, humans have set aside unique places of spiritual significance to help them open up to the presence of God. The Shrine of St. Therese, a special place of refuge and retreat, is such a place. Located on Shrine Island and surrounding the Shrine Chapel are the Stations of the Cross, a devotion beloved to most Catholics and becoming ever-increasingly popular with non-Catholics who understand the depth of meaning in the Stations of the Cross or sometimes known as "the Way of Sorrows."
The origin of this form of devotion can be traced back to the early days of the Church. The faithful naturally venerated the chief scenes of our Lord's sufferings and death and traveled great distances to visit the places made sacred by the Passion of Christ.
Following the conquest of Palestine by the Mohammedans, great difficulty was experienced by Christians in visiting the sacred sites. So it was that the Church in various localities devised the form of devotion known as the "Way of the Cross," or the "Stations of the Cross."
Inspired artists, sculptors and painters then set to work to visualize the moving incidents along the Way of Sorrows. Such representations were often placed along roads leading to the churches, or in the grounds surrounding them. In this way, the people could make devout pilgrimages to commemorate certain events in the last hours of Christ's earthly life.
Still later, similar representations were set in the walls of the churches so that these devotions might more easily be continued. The number of traditional stations, which at first varied widely, finally became fixed at fourteen. Contemporary Christians often conclude with a focus on the Resurrection as a fifteenth station. Of these, nine are based directly on events recorded in the Gospels. The remaining six (numbers 3,4,6,7,9, and 13) are based on inferences from the Gospel accounts or from spiritual roots of tradition. (Note: During the Holy Year of 1975, Pope Paul VI approved a new series of Stations based on the Gospel. These Stations begin with the Last Supper and conclude with the Resurrection).
Surrounding the Shrine of St. Therese chapel and built in the same style as the Chapel walls--mortar and beach stone--are fifteen Station of the Cross structures. Fourteen of these formations were constructed under the supervision of Doc Holden, the stone mason who orchestrated the construction of the Shrine Chapel, and the fifteenth form was completed by Greg Mallinger, a local Juneau stone mason, and his family in 1992.
Initially, in the 1940's, each of the Station forms contained a picture protected by glass of one of the scenes of Christ's journey to crucifixion. The damp climate penetrated these images and in 1966, a plaster cast set of figures were set in place. It was at this time that a corpus of Christ was placed on the 16 foot concrete cross that had been erected on the rise to the west of the Chapel. Again, the salt water, damp climate, and some vandalism began to take its toll of the cast station material.
In 1986, a young junior high school student, J.J. Sweigart, was thoroughly enjoying the artistic instructions of R.D. Robinson, a local Juneau artist who was participating in the Juneau Public School District's "Artist in Residence" program. One day while working on classroom art, Sweigart approached Robinson about repairing the damaged station sculpture at the Shrine, for some of the station scenes were broken or missing.
Not forgetting the young student's comments, Robinson visited Shrine Island and after seeing the poor condition of the sculptures he decided that he would not attempt to try to refurbish the deteriorated works, but that he would offer an alternative. His proposal would consist not of repairing, but of redoing the entire set of sculptures, no small undertaking indeed. After putting together a portfolio of his past work and a plan for 14 new station scenes, Robinson met with the Shrine Committee and shared his ideas.
Realizing that the sculptures needed considerable attention, and yet fully aware of the very limited Shrine budget which was earmarked for leaking roofs and facility repairs, the members of the committee endorsed Robinson's idea only if donors for the project could be found. After placing a couple of phone calls and sitting down at table with the prospective contributors, two anonymous donors funded the complete plan at a price that was slightly less than $40,000. (Note: The donors were revealed only after their deaths, the late Vera Carrigan died in 1991 and the late Mary Toner in 1993.) The signing of the contract took place in December of 1986 and Robinson began working on the sculptures project which was spread over the next two and a half years.
In reminiscing about this accomplishment, Robinson called the project one of the "most intricately detailed sculpturing" works he’d ever done. His goal for this extensive project was to achieve a three-dimensional effect that would make viewers feel as through they could reach around each image. To add to that effect, R.D. created facial expressions that present the figures as though they are making eye contact with each other and with their viewers, you, the audience.
Sharing how he had visited the Holy Land, researched the Scriptures for a Biblical basis for the passion of Jesus before designing each setting, and studying in depth the anatomy of the human person so that the intricate details could be included in the sculptures, Robinson related that, "It was a challenge to do the pieces since the scenes are so very relentless. There is a great deal of facial detail in each scene, with Christ in agony in so many. It is a monumental challenge to sculpt sadness, contempt, all the wounds, and just a host of human emotions in sculpture."