More than 140 refugees are tightly packed onto a 20-foot skiff. Some look back, but most look forward with hope toward the future and a new life. Parents hold tired, scared children who clutch their pets and stuffed animals. Look more closely, and you will find the holy family stands among these migrants from across history. And, in the center, a pair of angel wings rise from the crowd.

This is “Angels Unawares,” intricately sculpted and cast in four tons of bronze by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. An anonymous patron and Schmalz gifted the piece — based on Hebrews 13:2: “Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unawares.” — to The Catholic University of America.

“As a Catholic university, we’re committed to the cause of immigrants, refugees, and displaced people, not simply because it makes us feel good, or it’s the right political stance, but because we find Christ in them.”

— University President John Garvey

Commissioned by Pope Francis to call attention to migrants and refugees

On September 27, 2020, Catholic University unveiled the sculpture on campus in a ceremony that was broadcast around the world via YouTube. But this is only the beginning of the sculpture’s journey — in 2021, the piece will make a pilgrimage throughout North America before returning to its permanent home on campus.

In late February 2020, Schmalz approached Catholic University with an opportunity. He’d previously been commissioned by Pope Francis to create “Angels Unawares” to call attention to the plight of migrants and refugees and celebrate their many contributions to our society.

The first casting was installed in St. Peter’s Square and unveiled by Pope Francis on September, 29, 2019, the 105th observance of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. Schmalz also had a second casting of the statue, and he and his patron felt strongly that it should find a permanent home in Washington, D.C. As the national university of the Catholic Church in America, Catholic University was the perfect location.

“The World Day of Migrants and Refugees is a call to each of us to provide personally for the care of migrants and refugees through our prayers, charitable works, and advocacy with and on behalf of our brothers and sisters.”

— Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory

After initially speaking with University President John Garvey and the Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory, University chancellor and archbishop of Washington, D.C., Schmalz traveled to D.C. in March to meet with Scott Rembold, vice president for University Advancement, and Debra Nauta-Rodriguez, the University’s architect. After touring campus, he selected a location that would serve as an appropriate and beautiful site for the sculpture: the plaza between Father O’Connell and Gibbons halls.

Unveiled and blessed at a temporary location on campus

On September 27 — the 2020 celebration of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees — the sculpture was formally unveiled at a temporary location on campus before a small group, which included members of the Catholic University community who have immigrated to the United States, or whose families immigrated here.

Viewed throughout the world via a livestream, the unveiling ceremony featured a blessing from Archbishop Gregory and remarks from President Garvey; Schmalz; Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States of America; Sandra Barrueco, Ph.D., director of Latin American and Latino Studies at Catholic University; and junior Brayan Hernandez.

“Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unawares.”

— Hebrews 13:2

“The World Day of Migrants and Refugees is a call to each of us to provide personally for the care of migrants and refugees through our prayers, charitable works, and advocacy with and on behalf of our brothers and sisters. Given the significance of this day, it is so fitting that we are gathered here together to bless this statue,” Archbishop Gregory said at the ceremony.

“Thank you to Mr. Schmalz for capturing my family’s migration journey and that of millions. Thank you to the Church for my family’s faith and the countless supports provided, such as food, clothing, and more, while we worked tirelessly to establish ourselves like many others,” Barrueco said. “I also thank the University, where I have been on the faculty for over 15 years, for not only its unceasing dedication to the concept of immigrants, migrants, and refugees, which is not found as readily elsewhere, but to the dedication of excellence in research and education to meet the needs of the community, the nation, and the Church. In doing so, with ‘Angels Unawares’ aptly situated at Catholic University, we shall be inspired by the migrants embodied in the statue, progressing ahead — pa’lante — with the Lord at the helm and angels in our midst.”

A four-ton statue on a national tour

In April, the sculpture was shipped from the Vatican to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which was intended to be the first stop on a North American tour. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the statue remained there much longer than expected, and eventually the tour was postponed. “Angels Unawares” will reside on campus at its temporary location until it is possible to continue its planned tour. At this time, confirmed stops include Boston, Mass.; South Bend, Ind.; and San Antonio, Texas. Schmalz is also in talks with several other locations.

“With ‘Angels Unawares’ aptly situated at Catholic University, we shall be inspired by the migrants embodied in the statue, progressing ahead — pa’lante — with the Lord at the helm and angels in our midst.”

— Sandra Barrueco, Ph.D.

During the sculpture’s tour, the University will raise funds to construct a plaza to provide a fitting permanent setting for the sculpture. The plaza will include a reflecting pool, seating, and an exhibit sharing the statue’s history.

“As a Catholic university, we’re committed to the cause of immigrants, refugees, and displaced people, not simply because it makes us feel good, or it’s the right political stance, but because we find Christ in them,” President Garvey said at the ceremony. “I’m grateful to all who made today a possibility, and for the gift to us of ‘Angels Unawares.’ It will serve as a constant reminder to make space in our hearts, in our thoughts, and in our actions for the immigrant, the refugee, and the homeless.”