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Archives Working as a family for the Blessed Mother

December 13, 2023

By Mary Beth Bracy, consecrated virgin
Contributing Writer

“Hey Grandpa, if we come drop off Mary with a month ‘til camp is there anything you can do for her?”

So begins the story of the restoration of Our Lady’s statue at Guggenheim, recounted Gabriel Gratto, camp counselor and music teacher at Indian Lake Central School. Seeing how the statue of the Blessed Virgin had become dilapidated, he and his brother Christian – a student at Ithaca College and long-time Guggenheim camper – endeavored to refurbish her. They asked their grandpa, Jack Barrette, a parishioner of St. Alexander’s in Morrisonville who worked as an art teacher at Beekmantown Central School for 30 years, to take on the project.

It could be said that it took a family of jugglers – the Gratto family performs as jugglers – to maneuver Our Lady into their car. Christian explained that the statue is, “Extremely, shockingly heavy – at least over 200 pounds. It took three people to carry.”

“We waddled it up to my car,” added Gabe.

The idea began, Christian noted, when the young men saw the state of the statue.

“(It) was in the Mary grotto at Guggenheim,” he said. “It looked rough – pieces were coming off, shards of cement needed to be repainted pretty badly. We were thinking of people that could possibly repaint it. We thought of our grandpa. We brought it to him and didn’t want to hurt her more, so we wrapped it in a cloth.”

Gabe recalled why restoring the statue of the Blessed Mother was meaningful to them.

“My brother (Christian) and I were both longtime camp goers,” he said. “I started in 2013 and he’s gone since 2016. It’s our second home like it is for many in the diocese. Mary’s grotto is a lovely place but was in rough shape. Camp cleanup inspired us to bring her to my grandpa, who is a talented sculptor.”

Visitors of Guggenheim have Barrette to thank for the refurbishing of the statue.

“Other than getting it to him and standing her up and down,” Christian said, “he did it all by himself. He re-cemented all of the cracks and put the structure back to good shape and repainted it. He sprayed a cover on it so it’s weather proofed.”

Barrette, who just celebrated his 86th birthday, reflected on the process of restoring the statue.

“My two grandsons love going to Camp Guggenheim,” he said. “They came to my house one day and they said; ‘Grampie, do you think you can fix this?’”

Gabe remembered that his Grandpa replied: “‘Oh sure.’ He would send pictures here and there: ‘Did the head, painted the snake, plastered the face today.’”

“I got some cement mortar and some acrylic bonding agent, and I started by taking off little pieces that were falling off,” Barrette said. “Then I put the bonding agent on. I tried to file and shape the cement to make it look like the original. The face had one eye and a nose. I had to build up the eye. It took me a couple of weeks by slowly adding the cement to build up the statue before I painted it. I sealed the cement and then painted it with two coats and then sprayed on some acrylic sealer.”

The project was different than others the artist had worked on previously.

“I’d never worked with plaster before,” Barrette shared. “I checked out information online to get the statue into the shape that I wanted. It took three weeks. I wanted to make sure that I got it done in time for work week at camp. Gabriel wanted to get it in there before the campers came. The paint was outdoor acrylic paint. I used two different shades of blue and I added some three-dimensional stars – I used a stencil of stars and a blue base. Christian brought a cement square to give Our Lady a foundation. (Before Our Lady was in the ground buried up to the feet.) I did some gold on the trim and then I did a pink sash or belt instead of one that was blue. I thought I would add a little more color to it.”

Barrette had previously created several pieces of art.

“I carved up two animals for the Adirondack Carousel (a loon and a toad), and I carved a loon for the Empire State Carousel in Cooperstown,” he said. “I used to work at boy scout camp in the summer at Bedford. We always had a pair of loons up there. Toward the end I joined the Champlain Valley Woodcarvers and I started carving birds. I had the carving tools so that’s why I volunteered to do the animals for the carousel in Saranac Lake.”

Looking back on the experience, Barrette said, “Leave it to my grandsons to always add projects for me to do. How can you say no? I go to Mass every day and I do get your newspaper.”

The reaction to the newly restored statue has been tremendous. “People are very impressed and happy,” enthused Christian. “All of the long time Guggenheim people are very happy to see her touched up and restored. All of the new campers are happy to spend time with her in the grotto there. All the old time campers are quite impressed, I think.”

Our Lady’s tour from Saranac Lake to Plattsburgh to Morrisonville and back again was worth it, shared Gabe.

“I brought her back the beginning of staff week while all the counselors were there,” he said. “I put her there half way through. All the staff were very happy, life-long campers like myself. We pulled some rocks out of the lake to build the area behind her. Lots of campers prayed the Rosary around her this summer.”

“When we returned her to Guggenheim we reinforced the rock wall around the back side and made it bigger – taller and wider so it doesn’t fall down easily,” Christian added. “Before it was pretty small. We put some Hosta’s (from my Grandpa’s) around her in the front with a solar powered light in the evening.”

Barrette and his grandsons want to ensure that the statue is preserved.

“I suggested to Gabriel – he’s going up to Family Guggenheim with his mother and father – that they move Our Lady inside for the winter. Once water gets in it freezes and it falls apart.”

“It is amazing to see the before and after,” commented Father L. William Gordon. “Quite an undertaking! Jack and the boys are so proud of it. There are pictures galore of the entire process.”

Gabe described how they returned the statue.

“It was a struggle but definitely worth the effort,” he said. “It was a joint effort to getting her where she needed to go. She made her way around the diocese.”

“It doesn’t matter how old you are or how young you are in our Church,” concluded Gabe. “There is always a gift or talent you have to build up the Catholic Faith, whether you’re young and operating a summer camp or an elderly man making beautiful art.”

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