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.