SALEM — Eleven days ago, while digging the foundation of a new building on Lafayette Street, construction workers made a startling discovery.
They found St. Joseph.
The large statue, which had not been seen for more than 60 years, was found where it was long believed buried, under the parking lot of the former St. Joseph Church.
Over the years, its whereabouts, or even existence, had become the stuff of urban legend. Did it still exist after all these years? Where was it buried?
As church demolition and redevelopment plans moved forward the past few years, several longtime parishioners raised the issue of the statue. Its possible existence became so important it was mentioned in a legal document governing redevelopment of the site.
In 1911, the finely detailed statue of a bearded St. Joseph had been placed between the twin towers of a church built by French-Canadian immigrants. When that church was destroyed three years later in the Salem Fire of 1914, all that remained was the building’s skeleton — which, remarkably, still included the statue.
The giant sculpture stood high in the church edifice for 30 years, more than 100 feet above ground, a lone sentry over a ravaged religious site. When it was taken down in 1944, a large crowd turned out to watch. Children posed for photos after the statue, wrapped in heavy ropes, was lowered to the ground by a crane.
It was buried sometime before a new St. Joseph Church opened in 1950. Although there were no known records or photographs of the event, several older parishioners said they saw it being placed in the ground and could even point out the spot.
But finding it proved challenging.
The Planning Office for Urban Affairs, a developer associated with the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, promised to record and rebury the statue if it was found during this winter’s demolition of St. Joseph Church or construction of a four-story, $20 million affordable housing apartment complex now underway.
They used sonar and ground-penetrating radar last year in the search for the statue, which was reported to be 12 feet tall and weigh 6 tons. They even cautioned construction workers to dig with care. But after several months of work, nothing was found and even faithful parishioners had all but given up hope.
And then it happened — on Friday, May 3.
“It was the very last footing for the foundation” of the new building, said Lisa Alberghini, president of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs.
The statue was completely uncovered by last Monday, and put back in the earth just as quickly, possibly to avoid reigniting the controversy that dogged this project through years of legal challenges and this winter’s church demolition, which drew a few protesters.
Last Tuesday, the statue was reburied in a private ceremony attended by a small group of invited guests that included the Rev. Lawrence Rondeau, the former pastor of St. Joseph; the Rev. Timothy Murphy of Immaculate Conception Church and Mayor Kim Driscoll.
Surrounded by heavy equipment and the noise of construction, Rondeau said prayers and others spoke.
“St. Joseph was a carpenter, and it’s wonderful and appropriate to honor him today at this active construction site where we are working to build new homes … up out of this ground, for people in need,” Alberghini said, according to notes of her remarks.
Rondeau was away yesterday and could not be reached.
The statue was interred in accordance with church law, which requires religious artifacts to be burned, buried or destroyed, according to Alberghini. The developer said the Archdiocese was contacted prior to reburial.
A handful of church members witnessed the brief ceremony.
“I was so happy I was able to see it,” said Betty Richard, a longtime St. Joseph parishioner who works as the secretary/cook in the St. James rectory. “It was just amazing it was in one piece.”
The only visible damage, she said, was a chipped nose and broken fleur-de-lis in St. Joseph’s hands.
Under a legal agreement, the developer took archival photos and recorded other details before burying it a short distance from where it was found. It was moved by construction equipment to what will be the courtyard of the u-shaped apartment complex.
While digging last week, workers also found the cornerstone of the 1911 church, which will be placed in the landscaped courtyard not far from the recently reinterred statue of St. Joseph which, after all these years and all this mystery, is safely back in the ground.
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.