On a sweltering day in September 1987, Pope John Paul II made history as the only sitting pope to walk the streets of New Orleans, inspiring what many would later describe as a spiritual reawakening and a renewed sense of volunteerism among many of those who saw him.
More than 30 years later, on Sunday, that visit was officially memorialized during the blessing and unveiling of a white marble statue depicting the former pope, crafted in Italy by sculptor Franco Alessandrini.
The 6-foot-tall, roughly 5,000-pound statue, which was blessed by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on Nov. 15, is a gift from the Archdiocese of New Orleans to the residents for the city's tricentennial.
The statue will be a permanent fixture in Jackson Square and a reminder of the 300-year ties between New Orleans and the Catholic Church, Archbishop Gregory Aymond said during a special Mass at St. Louis Cathedral.
"One of the greatest blessings of the city's 300-year history was the visit of St. Pope John Paul II, who stood right here, and who also preached in our cathedral," Aymond said to a large crowd who had gathered after the Mass in Jackson Square.
The statue was sponsored by the American Italian Cultural Center under the leadership of Frank Maselli, its chairman.
"I have two hopes of this statue — that 300 years from now, this city and this statue will still be here," Maselli said. "And that just as St. Pope John Paul II inspired people when he was here, I hope this statue will inspire a lot of us ordinary people to do extraordinary things."
Maselli's organization also sponsored a performance in Jackson Square by a group of Italian musicians and dancers, the Flag Throwers of Sansepolcro. They demonstrated traditional techniques from the city in the Tuscan region where Alessandrini was born in 1944.
This isn't the first statue the artist has done for the city. After training in fresco painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Florence, Alessandrini made his way to New Orleans in 1967.
He became so enraptured by the city's music and art that he set up a home here, and for the past 50 years, he has split his time between here and Tuscany.
During that time, he has produced the Monument to the Immigrants in Woldenberg Riverfront Park, bronze sculptures of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos at the Seelos Center in the Irish Channel, six life-size marble statues of New Orleans religious figures in the back garden of the Old Ursuline Convent and a Byzantine-style mosaic titled “New Orleans” at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
But in an interview with the archdiocese's newspaper, the Clarion Herald, Alessandrini said this particular commission had special significance to him, in part because of the former pope's dedication to young people.
Alessandrini himself was orphaned at age 1, in the final months of World War II. He was raised temporarily by his grandmother and then lived in an orphanage until he was 21.
"I think the wonderful thing is the two children who are on the side of the pope," Alessandrini, who was in New Orleans when the pope visited, said of the statue he created. "They are the young generation that the church needs to bring back to get closer to something more spiritual."
During the ceremony, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who accepted the gift on behalf of the city, also spoke highly of Pope John Paul II and of the Catholic Church's history in New Orleans.
Paraphrasing a sermon Aymond had given during the earlier Mass, Landrieu added that the two "cannot be separated."
"From the beginning of our time, the government of New Orleans and the Catholic Church have made this walk together," Landrieu said.