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Saint Joseph Church and Shrine

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Saint Joseph Church and Shrine
Cambridge, MI

The Saint Joseph Church and Shrine in Cambridge, Michigan is famous for its Trabajo Rustico art style. Trabajo Rustico was developed by Mexican artisans living in Texas in the 1920s, the style sought to reproduce the look of wood, rope and other materials in concrete. The Saint Joseph Church added a shrine and sculptures to the existing church in the 1930s. The Via Dolorosa (or The Way of the Cross) Shrine is an outdoor winding pathway leading past the 14 Stations of the Cross. In Western Christianity "The Way of the Cross" usually refers to the depiction of the final hours of Jesus Christ, and the devotion commemorating the Passion. It is often set in contemplative walk-ways. The statues are set aside and include some Trabajo Rustico elements.

Saint Joseph Church adn Shrine
Photograph by Gladys Saborio, courtesy of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office

Standing on a low bluff overlooking Iron Lake in Michigan’s Iron Hills region, the St. Joseph Church and Shrine complex is centered around a fieldstone church, built in 1854-1863 and expanded with transepts and renovated in 1928-29 to give it a Spanish mission look. The church grounds include a cemetery that contains graves dating back to the 1850s. The church was built to support a small but growing Catholic community of Irish families who had settled in the northwest township of Cambridge. The shrine, built in the 1930s as a representation of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, stands on a hillside behind the cemetery and church, its pathways and stairs leading to the fourteen Stations of the Cross. Of the original fourteen stations constructed using the Trabajo Rustico medium ten survive. Each of the fourteen stations contains a plaque made of “San Jose” tile from San Antonio, Texas.

Trabajo Rustico was a new type of artwork for the 20th century. It was not intended for an elite audience, but was to be outdoors and available to all. The early revolutions of the 20th century in Mexico, Turkey and Russia shook the social foundations of long standing philosophical, governmental and artistic institutions, and allowed for new artistic forms to develop. Even before the famous Mexican muralists and muralist style was adopted in the United States in the 1930s (not without opposition), the Mexican artisans living in Texas created the medium they called Trabajo Rustico, a form of faux bois sculpture. The origin of this movement began in France, but in Mexico it was used to create outdoor furniture and other landscape ornaments that had the look of wood but were better able to withstand the heat of the tropics. The artisans employed native themes, colors and decorative motifs, exploring Mexico’s rich Indian past for themes. A winged devil, a common motif throughout Latin America, is used in the place of a gargoyle at Saint Joseph's. An exhibition mounted by the National University of Costa Rica at its Mueso de Cultura Popular in Santa Lucia de Barva, Costa Rica, in February 2006, identified the devil motif found throughout Latin America and the southwestern United States as representing Judas Iscariot and mankind’s sins.

Station #11
Photograph by Gladys Saborio, courtesy of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office[graphic] photo
Shrine showing Trabajo Rustico Stair
Photograph by Gladys Saborio, courtesy of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office

The recognized master of Trabajo Rustico in the United States is Dionicio Rodriguez, born in Toluca, Mexico, in 1891. In Mexico he met Robles Gill, an Italian artist who taught him the basics of the European art form. While still living in Mexico he worked on such projects as the fountain at Chapultepec Park and the presidential residence in Mexico City. By the mid 1920’s Dionicio Rodriguez was living in Texas, perfecting his art. While commissioned by W.H.L. McCourtie, a prominent Michigan businessman, he became involved with Raphael Corona, Jorge Cardaso and other Mexican artisans. Together, they were involved in the planning process in creating the Shrine at St. Joseph’s Church. Raphael Corona seems to have been the chief artist at executing the art at the Church.

On the Via Dolorosa, or “Way of the Cross” pathway, leading past fourteen Stations of the Cross (conceived by Father Pfeffer to represent the “Way of the Cross” in Jerusalem and meant to be a reflective walk on the journey of Jesus Christ’s path to eventual resurrection); the stations are framed by Trabajo Rustico architectural settings. Near the entry of the first station on the west stands an olive tree rendered in the style and signed by R. Corona. On the second station is a devil’s head sculpture over the entry arch, the stones of various materials set into the walls, and realistic looking windows with “wooden” lintels. A good deal of the original coloration remains intact. The third station, again done in the Trabajo Rustico, displays a large boulder and a large wooden cross leaning across it. The cross, fashioned from cement, is so detailed that it resembles natural wood. The most intricate Trabajo Rustico work is at station number nine, which displays the ladder used in erecting Jesus’ cross, the spear which pierced his heart and the three dice which the soldiers rolled to bargain for the robe. Other elements remain at the remaining stations, including a stairway leading to the twelfth station with finely executed log sculptures holding up sculptured board planks. Station number thirteen, representing the “Bleeding Heart of Mary” is constructed of multicolored stones, glass, tile and concrete. Overall, the wealth of artwork found in a parish as small as St. Joseph’s is a testament to both the artisans and Father Pfeffer, who recognized the value of artwork to attract visitors as well a sharing a serious contemplative display for the purpose of spiritual replenishment. The Saint Joseph Church and Shrine was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on May 4, 2007.

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