BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — It is the stuff of mysteries: Where, after all these years, is St. Joseph?
The 12-foot statue, which once stood more than 100 feet off the ground between the twin towers of an earlier St. Joseph Church, is believed to be buried under the parking lot of the present church on Lafayette Street.
But where exactly is it?
The Planning Office for Urban Affairs, the developer razing the church and building a four-story apartment building on the parking lot, pledged to look for the statue before commencing the $20.7 million development. If the statue was found and in the way, it was likely going to be reburied on-site or moved.
Well, the search has been done and the statue has not been found.
A consultant hired by the developer looked for the statue or its remains using both ground-penetrating radar and sonar, according to Lisa Alberghini, president of the Planning Office.
“They haven’t found it,” she told members of the South Salem Neighborhood Association at a meeting Tuesday night at the Enterprise Center at Salem State University.
The statue has become almost an urban legend in Salem. Was it really buried? Could it have survived all these years? What would they do with it if it was found?
The magnificent statue, reportedly made of concrete, was erected on the 1911 church built by the French-Canadian immigrants who founded St. Joseph Parish.
When the church burned in the Great Fire of 1914, the skeleton of the church building remained, with the twin towers and the statue still in place. The burned-out church stood on the 2-acre site for several decades.
According to newspaper files, the statue was taken down by a giant crane in December 1944, with a large crowd watching. Removal of the statue was “made necessary as a part of the razing of the church towers,” the newspaper reported.
The current St. Joseph Church opened in 1950, according to a parish history.
The statue may have stayed in the church yard for several years between demolition of the old church and construction of the new one. Although no absolute proof seems to exist, some parish members insist it was buried on-site.
If it was buried, it was done to comply with church law, Alberghini explained, which requires sacred articles to be reused, burned, buried or destroyed.
“From the church’s perspective, it’s where it belongs,” Alberghini said.
If the statue is under the parking lot, it has been there for more than 60 years.
“Chances are it has disintegrated by now,” Norman LaPointe, a longtime parish member and deacon, told Alberghini at the neighborhood meeting.
There is always a chance, though, that the giant statue will be uncovered during construction of the new apartment building. The excavation of the foundation will begin as soon as the church is razed and the site cleared, which is expected to be completed by the end of the month.
“We said to the contractor, ‘Keep your eye open,’” Alberghini said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.