When Roman Catholics from St. Peter’s and its mission parish, St. Joseph’s, in lower Manhattan, wanted to create a memorial to those who died Sept. 11, 2001, they turned to a Texas sculptor who is an Episcopalian.
John Collier of Dallas was selected from among 30 artists who made proposals to create the 9/11 memorial at St. Joseph’s Chapel next to Ground Zero. While he has spent much of his life creating art for major secular institutions, Collier in recent years has devoted himself to making religious art. For the second consecutive year in 2004, he received the design honor award from the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art and Architecture.
St. Peter’s Church was the place to which firefighters carried the body of their chaplain, the Rev. Mychal Judge, who was killed by falling debris while ministering to victims of the World Trade Center attacks.
A block from Ground Zero, the church and its St. Joseph’s Chapel, located in a commercial space nearby, both sustained considerable damage. Yet its proximity to the site made St. Joseph’s Chapel a refuge and center of operations for rescue workers. By the time the rescue effort ended, St. Peter’s was intact but filled with debris, and St. Joseph’s needed a complete renovation.
A New York liturgical consultant was brought in to assist with the design and a search began for an artist to create a memorial for the new space. Collier was selected. “Like most Americans, I remember exactly where I was on Sept. 11, watching the entire awful drama unfold on television,” he said. He said he was delighted when asked to submit designs for the memorial and elated by being awarded the commission.
Since the theme of the church’s reconstruction was the Resurrection, Collier began to create a work portraying the patron saints of those involved in the disaster: St. Michael, patron saint of police officers; St. Florian, patron of firefighters; St. Joseph, patron of workers; and Mary Magdalene, witness to the Resurrection. Each bronze sculpture is five feet tall.
“As grand as any secular memorial might be,” said Collier, “it can only say, ‘Remember.’ This commission gave me freedom to say that.”