Cathedral crucifix to highlight Jesus’s supreme sacrifice


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Ian Byrne will reenact the crucifixion.

Specifically, he’ll fasten an image of Jesus to the new sanctuary cross for the Cathedral of St. Joseph.

“It’s a part of the project that has to be done,” said Mr. Byrne, proprietor and master woodworker of Byrne Custom Woodworking.

“I’ll do it with a lot more kindness than those original Romans did,” he said. “And I’ll make sure the thorns have been sanded well and try to make it as painless as possible.”

In so doing, he will join the 88-by-59-inch cross he fashioned of Douglas fir in his Lenexa, Kansas, workshop, with a 51-inch-tall image of Jesus carved in Oberammergau, Germany, from linden wood harvested from the Black Forest.

“I think the cross and the corpus are going to complement each other beautifully,” said Mr. Byrne, whose company is also creating the bishop’s chair (cathedra), presider’s chair, deacon’s bench, ambo and sanctuary Coat of Arms.

In remembrance

Seven time zones away, Johannes Albl spoke of the image of Jesus that his family’s company, Albl Oberammergau Woodcarving Studio for Sacred Art, created for the Cathedral crucifix.

“My grandfather always told me that when he was alone in his workshop and working on the corpus for a crucifix, he never felt alone,” Mr. Albl recalled. “He always had the feeling that the Lord was with him in that moment, carving that corpus.

“I think that describes how we all approach our work here,” he said. “For me personally, I never want to lose the awe in my heart when I see something new and beautiful that we’ve created for a church.”

Mr. Albl’s company also created the new statues of St. Isadore, patron saint of farmers, and his wife, Blessed Maria; St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who served as a missionary and educator in what is now Missouri; and Venerable Father Augustus Tolton, a Missouri native who went from slavery to becoming the nation’s first recognizably Black priest of the Roman Catholic Church.

The statues were created in a spacious studio next to the outdoor venue where the village of Oberammergau has been staging its live reenactment of Jesus’s passion and death for centuries.

The Albls, now in their 14th generation, are likely the oldest woodcarving family in Europe.

“We can trace our ancestors back until 1556,” said Johannes, the company’s business manager.

Handiwork of generations of the studio’s artisans adorn churches all over the world.

“While I was studying in Chicago for six months, I visited a church in Wheaton where my father had carved a 7-foot-10-inch corpus for a crucifix,” said Mr. Albl.

“It’s unbelievable to go to a place that’s filled with 1,500 people on Sunday and see the work of your dad reminding everybody of what it’s all about,” he stated. “The importance of this work can never be underestimated.”

Behold the wood

Mr. Byrne grew up in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, about 40 miles from Dublin.

“We call it the Garden of Ireland,” he stated. “It’s such a beautiful place.”

He started helping his father build furniture for their family home when he was a child.

“I remember being 3 and 4 years old and sanding panels with my dad,” he said. “I decided right then that this was what I wanted to do.”

He undertook a five-year woodworking apprenticeship and additional studies in design.

He and his wife moved to Kansas City a couple of years after getting married in Ireland.

Mr. Byrne opened his business in 1990 and now employs 20 artisans in a 16,000-square-foot woodshop.

Mr. Byrne recently helped complete the restoration of the 1883-vintage St. Peter Church in Jefferson City, fashioning trim for the sanctuary and elaborate woodwork for the new confessionals.

In comparison, “St. Joseph (Cathedral) is more contemporary — modern, I suppose you’d say,” he stated. “But a classical kind of modern.”

For the sanctuary cross, he selected pieces of Douglas fir with simple, straight, vertical grain.

“I didn’t want a lot of busyness in the grain to take anything away from the image of Jesus,” he said. “I just wanted nice, clean lines, and I believe we succeeded.”

He noted that the four end pieces of the cross match the flourishes on the bishop’s chair (“cathedra”), from which a cathedral gets its name.

“It turned out really nice how it unifies them both,” he said.

The sanctuary furnishings are rendered in quarter-sawed white oak, with vibrant woodgrain. The paneling is of similar, rift-cut white oak.

Taming some of the wood has required ingenuity and tenacity.

“For instance, we have to integrate the ambo with the stairs leading up to the sanctuary,” said Mr. Byrne. “The stairs are radial. You’ve got to get the angle exactly right. It’s been quite a task.”

Out of the forest

The crucifix is part of a soon-to-be-completed renovation, expansion and renewal of the Cathedral, to replace the building’s failing systems while enhancing its beauty, functionality, capacity for hospitality and conduciveness to uniquely Catholic worship.

The Albl studio’s work on the corpus and other statues began with interviews and discussions, followed by pencil sketches that became more fully developed with input from Bishop McKnight; Bill Heyer, the project’s architectural consultant; and the Cathedral renovation steering committee.

“Eventually, it comes down to an approved sketch that we can take into production,” Mr. Albl stated.

He said linden wood is good for statues because its grain does not call attention to itself.

“We take slats and fasten them together with wood glue and compress it with a clamp,” he stated. “After the gluing process, we cut out the rough shape of that statue.”

The carver then uses carving knives to render each detail and refine the image to completion.

The artisan then applies an old beeswax formula to the surface to give it a shiny finish and protect it from the elements.

Each statue is then packed in custom-built, air-freight-certified crates and sent to the work site.

“There were approximately two years and two months between our first contact with the project architect and when the statues left Germany,” Mr. Albl noted.

Bond of strength

Mr. Heyer pointed out that the Cathedral’s original architect wanted to create a recessed area at the back of the sanctuary. But that would have been difficult, as the entire circular shape of the building is supported by a steel tensile ring that would pass behind the sanctuary wall.

Mr. Heyer revisited the idea while working up initial plans for the renovation in 2020, only to have structural engineers tell him that keeping the tensile ring intact is essential for holding the building together.

He decided to remove the wall but leave the structural ring intact.

The exposed steel beam has been encased in wood, onto which the sanctuary crucifix will be mounted.

“The symbolism of that struck me immediately,” said Mr. Heyer. “Christ is supporting his Church. He’s basically saying, ‘Without me, this all falls apart.’”

Hope and sacrifice

Mr. Albl and Mr. Byrne discussed the significance of having a crucifix over the altar, rather than an empty cross.

“It’s so we can be reminded of the huge sacrifice that Jesus made for us,” said Mr. Byrne. “It’s like, ‘There he is, right where you can see him!’ And we have to do our part, too, which is minimal risk in comparison.”

“Christ on the cross is the deciding moment and the ultimate symbol of hope,” said Mr. Albl. “So, why shouldn’t we display a symbol of hope in its original form?”

Mr. Albl addressed the objection some non-Catholics express about the Catholic tradition of embellishing churches with images of Jesus and the saints.

“It’s not an idol that we’re creating,” he said. “It’s something that strengthens the faith and gives beauty and inspiration and also teaches and ultimately points people toward Christ.

“That’s the whole point of what we’re doing, not creating an idol or a golden calf,” he stated. “Because no golden calf can rescue you!”

Both men said they’re pleased with the trend of the past decade or so toward more-traditional forms of church design and décor.

“I grew up going to Mass in one of the most beautiful baroque churches of Bavaria and was an altar boy there,” said Mr. Albl.

“If you see that kind of beauty all around you in the church, in combination with a beautiful Liturgy, in combination with a beautiful homily, in combination with beautiful music, it will touch you much more deeply than something less beautiful,” he said.

Almost home

As the pieces come together and the finished Cathedral takes shape — “all of this comes to life,” said Mr. Byrne. “It takes on so much feeling and emotion.”

“I know that the attention to detail throughout this project has been superb,” he stated. “All the tradesmen and craftspeople on site have been absolutely phenomenal, and I can see the enthusiasm on their faces as they witness how it’s all coming together.”

“I think it’s taken everyone’s heart, and they’re putting everything they have into it,” he said. “To look at all these craftspeople around you doing their work with such pride and passion — there’s nothing like it.”

Mr. Albl spoke of the effect he hopes the crucifix and renovated Cathedral will have on people today and on generations to come.

“The ideal case would be that it strengthens their faith, that they get inspiration about what heaven looks like,” said Mr. Albl.

“I hope that when people see this image of our Lord, they will realize what he went through for all of us, and they will incorporate that into their lives and be as good of people as possible,” he said.