For 64 years, the 12-foot tall statue of St. Joseph watched from beneath the ground as the city of Salem bustled and grew above it.
Local lore had it that the stone colossus was buried somewhere beneath the site of the old St. Joseph Church on Lafayette Street, but the people who said they knew exactly where it was were wrong, said Lisa Alberghini, who runs a Catholic nonprofit that is building a housing and retail development on the plot where the church used to stand.
“We had people who saw it buried tell us the area, but even then they told us two or three different general areas,” said Alberghini, president of the Boston-based Planning Office for Urban Affairs.
An extensive radar sweep at the site did not turn up the statue, and parishioners had all but given up hope of finding the several-ton relic, until May 3, when workers dug the last hole on the last day of excavating the foundation and uncovered the stone saint, she said.
The sculpture was in remarkably good condition, although the hand that formerly held a fleur-des-lis was missing and the face was slightly weathered, said Norman LaPointe, former deacon of St. Joseph Church.
LaPointe, now the deacon of St. James Parish in Salem, remembers seeing the statue stand arms crossed atop the old church, and he remembers when the church was torn down and the statue laid in its subterranean resting place.
The statue was required to be buried by a church law stating that any decommissioned sacred artifacts must be buried, burned, or destroyed, he said.
The original St. Joseph Church was built in the late 19th century and the statue was erected in 1911. The church was gutted by the Salem fire of 1914 but the charred frame was not torn down until 1949, when the statue was buried and a new church was erected, LaPointe said. The second St. Joseph Church, a beloved white brick building, was torn down in January to make room for the new 51-unit housing and retail development.
LaPointe and members of several local parishes watched as another hole was dug May 7 and St. Joseph was placed back in the ground, just 15 feet from the spot where he was unearthed. “It’s kind of nice to know it’s there,” LaPointe, 80, said. “It’s nice to know that it’s not going to be abused or lost.”
For the people of Salem, the burial also symbolizes that the land is still holy, said the Rev. John Sheridan, 49, pastor of St. James Church.
“The parish church was the heart of that entire area,” he said. “The statue being reburied was symbolic that St. Joseph is still living out its mission.”