High Artistry

Baltimore exhibit features art work and furniture by wood carvers from the Peruvian Andes.

December 27, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The Nativity scene at the Catholic Center is a small masterpiece of woodcarving by the peasant artisans of a remote village high in the Peruvian Andes.

The creche might be an altar piece from Renaissance Italy, with the finely carved Virgin praying, St. Joseph reverent, a shepherd and king adoring at the crib side, an ox and a donkey peering from the stable.

But the shepherds with their sheep stepping into the scene under the golden guiding star could be peasants from the high Andes village of Chacas where the figures were carved.

The melding of cultures in the manger scene is perhaps inevitable. The Cooperativa Artesanal Don Bosco de Chacas Peru created the figures and the landscape of the manger at the center, which is at Mulberry and Cathedral streets. And the cooperativa grew out of the carpentry and woodcarving school that an Italian missionary priest named Hugo de Censi started in 1979 at Chacas.

The Nativity scene is part of an exhibition of artifacts, wood sculpture, religious works and furniture on view through January at the Palazzo Italia. The Palazzo is in the Cultural Center at the Italian Consulate, a half-block east of the Catholic Center on Mulberry.

The work from the cooperative was brought to Baltimore through the efforts of the Rev. Luigi Cremis of Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Highlandtown, and Diana and Ippolito Fiori, lay volunteers at the church.

Father Luigi, who is from Buglia, Italy, spent four years at Chacas and then another year at a nearby parish, before coming to Baltimore a year ago. The Fioris, from Perugia, Italy, have been lay missionaries, at Chacas and at churches in Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador as well as Peru. Father Luigi, who is a Diocesan priest, and the Fioris were assigned to Our Lady of Pompeii to help serve a burgeoning Latin-American congregation in Highlandtown.

Chacas is a very poor village of about 3,000 mostly Incan people about 11,000 feet high in sierra north of Lima in the department of Ancash. Chacas is so small it doesn't register on many maps.

"You can reach these places through very, very difficult bad roads," Diana Fiori says. She has a folio of photos of very scary, very narrow roads on the edge of various precipices. You ride in Fiat, Volvo and American trucks and buses dating from 30 years ago. Peru is famous for deadly crashes when buses plunge off these high narrow roads.

"It's a remote area," Father Luigi says. "It's a long journey. You have to drive maybe eight hours [from Lima] to reach the main town. Then you have to drive four to five hours, very high, on unpaved dirt roads, and sometimes, well, uncomfortable if not dangerous. You have to reach 16,000 feet. That's in the high passes of the Andes. You have to cross the Continental Divide of South America. Then you go down to 11,000 feet where most of the villages, including Chacas are. The east slope of the Andes."

When Fiori and her husband first went to Chacas in 1979, the journey from Lima took three days because the bus broke down.

"We stayed inside the bus one night, unfortunately very cold and rainy, with pigs on top and sheep inside," she says.

Father Hugo started his first carpentry and woodcarving school with 12 boys soon after he arrived in Chacas. Now there are 15 schools for boys and eight for girls, who learn weaving and embroidery and similar needlework.

"They come from very poor families," says Diana Fiori. "He wanted them to stay with him like in a family the way the founder Don Bosco started."

Don Bosco - St. Giovanni Melchior Bosco - founded the Salesian Society in 1844 in Turin, Italy. A poor shepherd as a boy himself, Don Bosco ministered to the street kids of Turin and established the first school-workshop in Turin in 1845. Salesian missionaries have since carried the work worldwide. Father Hugo is a Salesian missionary priest.

"You would see the same situation in the Andes, a lot of poverty," Father Luigi says. Ninety percent of the people who live in Chacas farm not very fertile land. "People abandon the villages to go to live in the main city. They get lost there. Poverty and drugs and delinquency. Basically what the father did was to try to teach them a trade in order for them to stay [at Chacas] and to have a Christian life.

"Father Hugo had the idea for this carving school looking at this beautiful side altar in the main church of Chacas, a unique church, Mama Ashu."

Father Luigi explains that Mama Ashu means the Virgin of the Assumption in Quechua, the language of the Incas. He notes that is the name of Baltimore's Basilica, across Mulberry Street.

"We would like to make a cultural exchange," Fiori says.

Father Hugo visited Baltimore in October for the consecration of the new St. John's Church in Westminster. Artisans in the cooperative carved the crucifix with figures of the Virgin Mary and St. John. St. Ignatius Church in Hickory has several statues, including a 7-foot crucifix and Stations of the Cross.

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