‘No hands but yours’

Institute statue restoration uses casting of artist’s hands to replace damaged ones

The newly fashioned hands made by Bruce Nufer are given a final examination before applying cement glue to permanently fasten them to the life-size statue. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

INSTITUTE — St. Teresa of Avila once said, “Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands but yours …” Bruce Nufer, a retired art teacher from Menasha who restores religious statues, took the second part of this metaphor literally. 

On June 16, Nufer, a member of St. Mary Parish in Menasha, completed a restoration project on a life-size statue of Jesus outside of SS. Peter and Paul Church. The statue’s hands were damaged and Nufer had to make concrete castings of his own hands to replace the ones he removed.

“Apparently some vandals knocked off all of the fingers on the statue, leaving it looking damaged and awkward,” Nufer told The Compass prior to making the trip to Door County.

“This job is unlike any restoration I’ve attempted before,” he said. “Probably my biggest challenge was casting a new pair of hands for the statue. That’s not something I do every day. Fortunately, my own hands were a close match in size, so that was a good start.”

The most difficult part of creating new hands for the statue was pouring the concrete.

“I bought a foam-like casting material, but concrete doesn’t pour that well into a mold with features like this,” Nufer said. “I probably cast six sets of hands (to create) the right consistency so that the new hands would have enough details and enough strength.”

The project was also complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Al Birnschein, finance chairperson at SS. Peter and Paul Parish, said the project was delayed more than a year due to the pandemic. When the parish began plans to restore the statue, Birnschein said someone told him about Nufer, whose restoration work was featured in The Compass in 2016.

Bruce Nufer, a member of St. Mary Parish in Menasha, holds the two concrete hands he created to replace the ones damaged by vandals. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Removing what remained of the statue’s fingerless hands took longer than Nufer expected. 

“I was somewhat surprised to find that the remnants of the old hands were made of a combination of aluminum, brass and concrete,” he said. “That’s a pretty unusual combination. Cutting off the hands turned out to be much harder than I anticipated.”

He used a cordless Sawzall and circular saw to cut through the metal and concrete. Nufer then used an electric drill with a concrete bit to drill a three-inch-deep hole into both wrists, which would be used to attach the new concrete hands.

Birnschein said the parish plans to clean and repaint the statue. 

  1. Peter and Paul Parish was established in 1883 and a new church building was completed in the summer of 1885. After an electrical fire destroyed the original church on Oct. 19, 1930, the present church was dedicated on Labor Day 1931. Birnschein is not sure when the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was erected at the church.

Nufer said he hopes the parish will like the restoration work.

“I find a lot of satisfaction knowing I’ve done something that parishioners and clergy will be glad to see back in place in close-to-new condition,” Nufer said. “A lot of these pieces have been a presence in the lives of the congregation for many decades and outright replacements not only cost many times what I charge, but lack the sentimental value. It’s a good feeling to know I’ve been able to help restore a bit of religious history.”

Hands down, it was the most unusual restoration project he’s undertaken, added Nufer.