Along with saints and biblical figures, Washington National Cathedral features sculptures of various modern-day figures, including busts of Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks, among others. This fall, a new face will join their ranks: Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Prize-winning author and activist who dedicated his life to ensuring the world never forgot the horrors of the Holocaust.
Though the structure has plenty of room for new stone faces, the cathedral’s fine-arts committee is highly selective in who they include, with gaps as long as five years between additions. Once someone is picked for inclusion, a two-year process of sculpting and consulting with the family begins.
The sculptor, Chas Fagan, is a longtime partner of the cathedral who is skilled at creating lifelike work in the cathedral’s style. Working with the family, Fagan starts with a clay model that captures the subject’s countenance and expression. Once that’s approved, the job gets passed on to the resident stone carver, Sean Callahan, who creates the bust out of Indiana limestone. (Callahan also created the plaque for Matthew Shepard in 2019.) As the pandemic has kept the cathedral closed to its usual crowds, the actual carving process was shortened to just two months.
When the final product is unveiled in the fall, visitors will encounter a likeness of Wiesel that perfectly captures his “dignity, his compassion, his wisdom, and the reality of suffering,” says cathedral dean Randy Hollerith. “He is someone who suffered some of the worst things that human beings can suffer and yet spent his life trying to create good, and to promote truth, and to protect humanity from having another horrible event like the Holocaust. We think it’s very important . . . to have someone in the cathedral who will remind everyone who walks in that door of the reality of the Holocaust, and that it must never be forgotten.”