Crafted busts of the four popes who have visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral now grace the cathedral’s north and south entrances along Fifth Avenue.
The busts of St. Pope Paul VI and St. Pope John Paul II are in the south vestibule of the cathedral, at the 50th Street entrance. The busts of the two most recent pontiffs to have visited the cathedral, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, are in the north vestibule at the 51st Street entrance.
The papal busts were completed over the course of two years by sculptor Carolyn Palmer, a native of the archdiocese. A 1970 alumna of St. Columba School in Chester, she graduated from John S. Burke Catholic High School in Goshen in 1974. Ms. Palmer belongs to St. Gabriel the Archangel parish in Saddle River, N.J., Archdiocese of Newark.
Through an elaborate process of sculpting, molding and bronze casting, the likeness of each pope was recreated with artistic precision.
“Being a Catholic and having a great reverence for these four special pontiffs, it was like a meditative prayer for me,” Ms. Palmer said of the process. “I felt honored. It was such a gift for me and hopefully it is a gift for the Church.”
The four bronze busts are situated on marble shelves at a height of about 8 feet from the floor. Each bust weighs about 250 pounds. Ms. Palmer designed them to fit the space, and they face visitors entering the cathedral.
“I felt that if people were looking up at them, that they would be also praying to them,” said Ms. Palmer, who earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from Nazareth College in Rochester.
Ms. Palmer also strove to portray the likenesses of the popes as relatable to the faithful. “I wanted everyone’s heart to be able to feel them,” she said, explaining that her vision was that they bestow upon onlookers “a nice, pleasant smile from the hearts of the pontiffs.”
“I feel that, through prayerful meditation, I imbued a warm, welcoming spirit to all four of them.” With that in mind, she hopes those who walk into the cathedral and look up “feel and sense their kindness and sensitivity” and that it “might influence them in some way.”
“I think there’s a lot of compassion in their faces. Christ had such compassion. Perhaps they can see them as Christ-like figures.”
She concedes the project “was a little intimidating. When I was working on them, I did stay up many, many, many nights, because I wanted to be sure that they would be a blessing to the public.”
The installation of the papal busts in the cathedral vestibules was completed on Nov. 1 by Hilgartner Natural Stone Co., which also made and installed the busts’ marble shelves and plaques, as well as the steel shelf supports.
“One of the greatest rewards was watching people stop, and look up, and look at them,” pointing and taking photos of the bronze pontiffs. “It was a little surreal to me,” Ms. Palmer said.
Pope Paul VI was the first pontiff to visit the United States, arriving in New York on Oct. 4, 1965, for a whirlwind 14-hour stay. Pope John Paul II traveled to New York twice: in October 1979 and October 1995. In April 2008, the bicentennial of the diocese, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in New York. In September 2015, Pope Francis, the first pope from the Americas, followed suit.