STURGEON BAY — When Deacon Paul Zenefski sits down to work in his home office he knows his mother will be looking over his shoulder. All 450 versions of her.
Lining the shelves of his walls, sitting on top of the cabinets, resting along the edge of his desk, are the hundreds of Marian statues Deacon Zenefski has been collecting — and dusting — since sometime in the 1980s. They come from Medjugorje, Israel, France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Russia, Philippines and even from an artist in Door County.
“I have another four dozen in storage, because my tastes (in materials) have changed, and I brought another couple dozen back with me from my September trip to Marian shrines in France, Spain and Portugal,” said Deacon Zenefski, who is pastoral leader at St. Francis and St. Mary Parish, Brussels, and St. Peter and St. Hubert Parish, Lincoln/Rosiere.
The statues, ranging in size from a few inches to a few feet, represent apparitions from around the world, as well as various biblical interpretations of Mary. It can be startling, and yet make perfect sense, to see a Mayan Mary, another wearing a Japanese kimono, several in Central American outfits, others in Indian or other ethnic dress. Some look like stone carvings, some are wood or metal, others are elaborately painted, but all portray Mary’s universal appeal, and are meant to represent, as they do to Deacon Zenefski, the beautiful mother of Jesus and her example of lived faith and obedience.
“At times, it must have been very confusing and difficult” to live her life, Deacon Zenefski said.
He often finds himself setting his work down and focusing on one or another of the statues, of the message of the apparition it represents, or simply the life and example of Mary herself. That focus becomes the springboard for meditation and prayer.
Although Deacon Zenefski received his first statues of Mary as a child, it really didn’t start to be a collection until his several trips to Medjugorje in the 1980s. No declaration of validity has been made concerning Medjurgorje because the alleged apparitions still continue there, but Deacon Zenefski sees the message as a continuation of Fatima, “which has fascinated me all my life.” The stone-like carvings he brought back are some of his favorites even today. At that point, he didn’t envision adding hundreds more to what he had, but the numbers were already growing.
“In the mid-1990s, my wife Laureen asked me why I had more statues of Mary in my office than of Jesus,” he said. That’s when the light dawned, and he realized he had a collection going.
Deacon Zenefski’s artistic tastes have changed, even while his devotion to Mary grew.
“While many of the newer statues are nice, the older ones, often from the 1950s and earlier, have much more character,” he said. “They were often made of plaster and were hand-painted, compared to the resin models of today.”
Not all of the early ones were art pieces, though. He pulled off the shelf two plastic statues that would be familiar to any Catholic grade school grad of the ’50s. Cheap plastic, but done to make Mary’s image available, at little cost, to children.
“These are from the days when I ‘played Mass,’” he said, grinning at the memory. “I’d set up all the statues in the house, make an altar, use grape juice and substitute my own garble for the Latin I didn’t know.”
Two of his shelves hold colorful images created by the artist Pipka, who owns Pipka’s of Door County, a studio in Sister Bay.
One of Deacon Zenefski’s favorite statues isn’t the prettiest, but it comes from a story that was new to him until he visited Spain, where he learned about Our Lady of the Pillar. According to ancient Spanish tradition, in the year 40 A.D., the apostle James (the Greater) was preaching without much success in the area now known as Zaragoza. While praying by the river Ebro with some disciples, Mary appeared to him standing on a stone pillar and surrounded by angels.
Mary told James that the faith of the people in that area would someday be as strong as the pillar on which she stood. That pillar, the base of which has never been located below ground, still stands within the church that was built, and then rebuilt around it.
“The interesting thing is that at that time, Mary would have still been alive, so her appearance would have been the result of the gift of bilocation,” he said.
Many of the deacon’s statues have been purchased through eBay, and that means taking a chance with shipping. It also means he’s had to learn a bit about repair.
“Take a look at this one,” he said, pulling a large, hollow plaster statue from the shelf. It looked fine — until he tipped it up and revealed the many cracks and lines on the inside. He has taught himself through trial and error, although he said he wouldn’t want to work on a face.
Deacon Zenefski said his devotion to Mary probably stems from the movies about Fatima and Lourdes that he saw in his Catholic school. The rosary became more important to him after his visits to Medjugorje, where pilgrims recite it several times a day.
“When you visit a place like that, you bring back all the images you’ve seen. On one of the hills in Medjugorje I saw a priest, oblivious of everyone, just standing there with his arms raised. You don’t forget that. You realize you’re not as holy as you think you are, and that you need to keep working.”
It doesn’t hurt to have your mother looking over your shoulder, either.