Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Bronze memorial honors memory of GU’s ‘Father Tony’
Story and photos by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the April 27, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Spokane sculptor Vincent DeFelice has completed a bronze work for Gonzaga University’s McCarthey Athletic Center, honoring the memory of Jesuit Father Tony Lehmann, who died in 2002. (IR photo)
Step through the northeast entrance of the McCarthey Athletic Center at Gonzaga University, and into the lobby area. Keep walking straight ahead, and soon, on your right, in a spacious alcove, you’ll come across a sight both touching and inspirational.
From some distance it may look like someone left out an ordinary folding chair with a basketball on the floor next to it. Upon closer examination, however, it turns out that what you see is a bronze memorial to the late, much-beloved Jesuit Father Tony Lehmann, who passed away in March 2002.
In addition to being Alumni Director for the university, Father Lehmann also was the unofficial chaplain to Gonzaga’s basketball team. A folding chair was always reserved for him at one end of the bench at both home and away games.
Noted Spokane sculptor Vincent DeFelice – with his family, a member of Spokane’s Assumption Parish – remembered this when friends of Father Lehmann and of the university asked him to fashion a suitable memorial to the priest.
There was no question that DeFelice was qualified. A graduate of Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, he went on to earn three art-related bachelor’s degrees from Eastern Washington University, plus an AAS in Design and a Professional Certificate in Advertising from Spokane Falls Community College. He is a past member of the board of the Spokane City Arts Commission, and among his awards is the Washington State Governor’s Award for Vocational Excellence.
Among his more notable works are the Memorial to the Unborn in Holy Cross Cemetery, the life-size sculpture of Louis Davenport that sits on a bench in the lobby of Spokane’s Davenport Hotel, and the life-size sculpture of “Joe Fan” in Joe Albi Stadium, Spokane.
DeFelice didn’t know Father Lehmann personally, “other than as an acquaintance and one of those people he often said hi to. But I could certainly see that many people were affected by his spirit and his efforts. That was evident when he became ill and ultimately passed away. I think it would have touched anybody, whether they knew him or not, just how beloved this guy was. So I thought it would be neat if there was some kind of tribute to him. That was after the [men’s basketball] team, during games, left a chair empty at the end of the bench as a memorial.”
The bronze memorial for Father Lehmann is installed in Gonzaga University's McCarthey Athletic Center. (IR photo)
The idea behind DeFelice’s sculpture was to make that gesture permanent. “Of course, it wouldn’t be practical to leave a chair at games empty beyond that one season,” he said, “so I suggested a sculpture of a bronze chair somewhere in the new athletic center. I suggested just doing an empty chair with a towel quietly draped over it, with a basketball on the floor next to it, and make the chair be the plaque. So on the sculpted chair are the simple words, ‘In loving memory of Father Tony,’ and ‘to be continued …’ which was Father Tony’s way of concluding a conversation. That pretty much says it all.”
The concept for the sculpture went through various committees and individuals, for discussion, and “at one point,” DeFelice said, “it was going to be a life-size figure with half of a bench, almost, and Father Tony sitting there. Although that would have meant a much bigger project for me, and possibly a little more money, it just didn’t seem appropriate. It took almost two years to get the go-ahead to do it, and that’s why it’s a little tardy in its unveiling. But I think it really keeps that continuity of Father Tony’s spirit there in the arena, with the fans, and gives him a permanent place with the team.”
Some may wonder if the sculptor simply had an ordinary folding chair, and towel, and basketball, dipped in bronze. DeFelice is quick to explain that nothing could be farther from the facts.
“Because it was something very functional and everyday, that was my fear as an artist, that people would think we just took a chair and a ball and bronzed the two items and plunked them down there. We looked at I don’t know how many hundreds of different folding chairs, including a sample from Gonzaga. If you look at a folding chair, it almost looks awkward, so we actually identified the best parts of various chairs. We would like where a brace was on one chair, or we’d want to get rid of that doo-dad from another chair. My apprentice/assistant and I basically designed the ultimate folding chair. It looks kind of nostalgic, yet it’s kind of the quintessential chair. And it’s all hand-sculpted over everything from cardboard, to wood, to wire armatures to keep the supports up.
“We were laughing, thinking people would think we’re crazy. But for it to feel right and for it to feel not just like this static, stiff thing, which it is, but to have character we had to do all this. We made it thicker and left a lot of the sculpting texture on it, so when you go up close to it you see all these little ridges that we left from the sculpting tools. We did that for two reasons, first to show that it isn’t just a bronzed chair, and second, it helps to catch the light and give it more character.”
The Father Tony memorial is built to take kids climbing on it and people sitting on it. Bronze is one of the “most durable” of media, he said, “and it’s meant to be touched.”
Once DeFelice got the go-ahead, it took about a month to do the clay sculpture. Once that was finished, he took the clay sculpture to the foundry in Hayden Lake, Idaho, where it took about three and-a-half months to produce the final bronze sculpture.
Among his other religious works are a crucifix and two stained glass windows for the chapel in the Gonzaga Law School. He did a monumental-sized bust of Jesuit Father DeSmet, the founder of Gonzaga University, now located outside the school’s Administration Building. He did a head of Christ for St. Charles Parish’s church, in Spokane. Gonzaga Prep has a head of Christ that DeFelice did. He also has a small gallery located in Spokane’s Davenport Hotel which displays and offers for sale many of his works.
He believes that faith and art emerged in human experience almost simultaneously.
“They almost needed each other,” he says. “As our faith developed, they started designing spaces in which to worship, and they relied on art to relay beliefs to the simple people who couldn’t read. The majority of the art in the world comes from religion. There is art in the catacombs. I think art and artists are needed because even though people can read now, it’s still important to create things that represent our beliefs and that reflect something bigger than themselves. This is true not only for religion. For any communities or cultures, art serves a greater good, to have (hopefully) beautiful art. Art does its part to help uplift people and keep people grounded in their beliefs and morals.
“I guess I’m one of those people who wants to use a lot of my other senses to experience spirituality,” he said. “This is a very Catholic sensibility that I have. I don’t do the art to say, ‘Wow, look at that! It’s made because it’s supposed to represent something bigger than itself. Hopefully, if I’ve done it well, that comes across.”