On Friday, April 22, The Catholic University of America held an interfaith dedication ceremony on campus for Welcome Plaza, the newly constructed home of the bronze sculpture Angels Unawares. The 3.5-ton, 20-foot-long statue, a gift to the University, recently completed a national tour to share its message of welcome and hope with thousands of people across the country.
About Angels Unawares
The sculpture is a second casting of a piece commissioned by Pope Francis; the original casting was installed in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 29, 2019. Angels Unawares depicts more than 140 immigrants from across history densely packed onto a boat. It embodies the Church’s teachings on immigration, particularly the importance of welcoming the stranger and celebrating the many contributions of migrants and refugees to our society. The sculpture’s name comes from Hebrews 13:2: “Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unawares.”
“The call to welcome the stranger is not an option or just a good idea, but rather a holy duty that expresses our love of God. Welcoming the strangers among us is what we do as people of faith. And it's what we must do as citizens of this nation.”— Reverend Randolph Hollerith, dean of the National Cathedral
Angels Unawares was first unveiled and blessed on Catholic University’s campus on Sept. 27, 2020. From October 2020 through September 2021, it traveled more than 9,700 miles across the country, making stops in Boston, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, San Antonio, Napa Valley, Minneapolis, and Chicago.
About the new Welcome Plaza
The construction of the new Welcome Plaza, located between Fr. O’Connell and Gibbons halls, was made possible by a leadership gift of $1.25 million from Jacqueline Mars. A trustee of the Kennedy Center and a board member of the Washington National Opera, Mars has taken an active interest in the University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art.
“I truly hope Angels Unawares will move people to a generosity of spirit toward immigrants. It is such an important piece of work, and I'm very proud to have it as part of Catholic University. So sail on, little boat, forever and spread your message.”— Jacqueline Mars, lead benefactor of Welcome Plaza
She was joined in her support for the project by the Francis and Kathleen Rooney Foundation, which made a $250,000 gift in support of the sculpture’s new home.
About the ceremony
Interfaith leaders call for the opening of hearts and arms
At the plaza’s dedication, Wilton Cardinal Gregory, University chancellor and archbishop of Washington, D.C., was joined by Rabbi Esther Lederman of the Union for Reform Judaism; the Reverend Randolph Hollerith, dean of the National Cathedral; and Imam Talib Shareef, president of Masjid Muhammad, The Nation’s Mosque, in offering prayers and reflections.
“In 1886, the people of France made a gift to the people of the United States. That gift we now know is the Statue of Liberty. In many respects, this is a smaller, but equally significant reminder of who we are as a people,” Cardinal Gregory said. “It is my prayer that this statue of Angels Unawares evokes that same spirit of welcome that should well up in our hearts and remind us of who we are as Americans. It reminds us of who we are supposed to be when we are at our best. May its presence here help us always to be at our best, to be people with open hearts and open arms to the stranger and to those who wish to become part of this family of nations.”
“We too as Jews have found ourselves as the unwelcome guest, banging down a door for entry, assimilating as a pathway to acceptance.”— Rabbi Esther Lederman of the Union for Reform Judaism
Rabbi Lederman said faces on the sculpture reminded her of what it means to be human, but also of the generations of Jewish people who have, whether through choice or war, been compelled to continuously seek new homes.
“It is our lived experience as a people. It's the story of Abraham … who left the home of his birth so he could have the freedom to worship the one God. It's the story of our father, Jacob, and his sons, who left their home in search of food in time of famine. It's the story of Abraham Joshua Heshel, who came into these lands to escape the death machine of the Nazis,” she said. “We too as Jews have found ourselves as the unwelcome guest, banging down a door for entry, assimilating as a pathway to acceptance. As I had a chance to look at this incredible, evocative statue, I saw the faces of my grandparents, who did ride a boat from Europe to the new world.”
Reverend Hollerith said he could see the weariness in the faces of those in the sculpture and encouraged attendees to remember it is the duty of all people of faith to welcome the stranger.
“It is represented in the heavy burdens on their backs, all huddled together, yearning for safety and security and freedom. These strangers are the migrants, the immigrants, the refugees, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, who are looking for rest, who are searching for welcome,” he said. “My prayer tonight is that we never lose sight of these angels among us as Americans, as people of faith. The call to welcome the stranger is not an option or just a good idea, but rather a holy duty that expresses our love of God. Welcoming the strangers among us is what we do as people of faith. And it's what we must do as citizens of this nation.”
“It is my prayer that this statue of Angels Unawares evokes that same spirit of welcome that should well up in our hearts and remind us of who we are as Americans.”— Wilton Cardinal Gregory, University chancellor and archbishop of Washington, D.C.
Imam Shareef reminded attendees that when Adam was created, he didn’t have a racial, ethnic, or national identity — he was simply a human being.
“He began with the first identity, the most important identity given to him by his creator — and that was human,” he said. “And from Adam came now the many beautiful, wonderful, diverse expressions of human life … that have all contributed to the beauty and strength of America: a nation of nations, a country made up of people from every land. Our prayer is that almighty God will bless us to be reflective of reality.”
A gateway to campus and new ideas
The ceremony also featured remarks from University President John Garvey and other members of the Catholic University community, as well as the sculpture’s creator, Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz.
“The various faiths that are represented here today all teach that neither hostility nor even fear is the appropriate attitude,” President Garvey said. “St. Francis Cabrini, an immigrant, the first American saint and the patron saint of immigrants, expressed the teaching of my Church. She said, ‘love must not be hidden. It must be living, active, and true.’ It's our hope that this sculpture will open the minds and hearts and arms of those who see it here on our campus.”
Schmalz said he hopes people see themselves when they look at the 140 faces of the people in the sculpture.
“I just wanted to put so many people on the boat. I really had an emotional connection to the positioning of the figures and what they’re representing,” Schmalz said. “It’s an honor to have my sculpture installed in such a beautiful place.”
Mark Ferguson, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, called the new plaza a gateway. He explained that the placement of the sculpture and its installation within the plaza were very intentional choices.
“It beckons us to a green sanctuary — to a place of contemplation and beauty. Angels Unawares sits safely just inside the sanctuary at its threshold, where it beckons us in and invites us to pause,” Ferguson said. “We reflect and resolve to be better people before continuing on our way.”
“It’s an honor to have my sculpture installed in such a beautiful place.”— Timothy Schmalz, creator of Angels Unawares
Sailing forward with a generosity of spirit
At the ceremony, Mars had the honor of turning on the fountain below the Angels Unawares sculpture for the first time. The rushing water creates an illusion that the boat is sailing forward within Welcome Plaza.
“When you think of all the immigrants, and the images we see of many of them crossing the sea to escape, it just seemed appropriate to have the water element in the Plaza, too,” Mars said. “I chose to support Welcome Plaza because I felt this location was a place where the statue could speak to a variety of people, young and old, from this country and elsewhere. I truly hope Angels Unawares will move people to a generosity of spirit toward immigrants. It is such an important piece of work, and I'm very proud to have it as part of Catholic University. So sail on, little boat, forever and spread your message.”
“All contributed to the beauty and strength of America: a nation of nations, a country made up of people from every land. Our prayer is that almighty God will bless us to be reflective of reality.”— Imam Talib Shareef, president of Masjid Muhammad, The Nation’s Mosque
Following the dedication of Welcome Plaza, the celebration continued inside Heritage Hall, where additional speakers included Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the Holy See; Jackie Leary-Warsaw, dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art; Mike Belz, president and CEO of Catholic Life Insurance, which sponsored the sculpture’s visit to Texas; and Lydia Korostelova, a Ukrainian citizen and member of the Catholic University Columbus School of Law Class of 2023.