Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Crafting a perch fit for a pope

When Pope Benedict XVI visits Washington in April, he'll sit on a chair designed and built by craftsmen in the Philadelphia suburbs.

The chair, which sits in the back of the DiCocco Family's St. Jude Shop in Havertown, where it was designed, can still be seen by the public.

After Wednesday, though, the chair will leave the shop and become, for reasons of security, a ward of the U.S. Secret Service.

"I hope they're careful with it," said John Huprich, who carried out the project in his Perkasie wood shop. "We don't want any nicks."

The chair is scheduled to resurface April 16 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The pontiff will sit on it as he greets close to 400 Catholic bishops in the nation's capital.

After that, the chair will be displayed in the basilica as a relic of the pope's visit, said Msgr. Walter Rossi, the basilica's rector. No one else will likely ever use it.

"It will become special because the pope has sat in it," Rossi said.

The commission, awarded by Rossi at cost, wasn't just for a papal chair. It was also for a pair of smaller chairs that flank the pope's, and for two kneeling benches that the pontiff will use separately for services during the visit April 15 to 20.

It's not clear yet who will sit in the flanking chairs, Rossi said. The pope is expected to bring a message of hope through faith during his visit to Washington and New York.

The commission came to be carried out here because of the DiCocco family's long track record as a purveyor of religious items.

Forty years ago, Louis R. DiCocco Jr. and his wife, Norma, set up the store on Brookline Boulevard in space formerly used by a supermarket.

"They took away the physical food, but they like to think they gave people spiritual nourishment," said son Louis R. DiCocco III, 47, a partner in the business with his three brothers and sister.

The business also has stores in Northeast Philadelphia, South Philadelphia and Chestnut Hill, he said. Louis Jr. is dead, and his widow, Norma, is semiretired.

After 20 years, the family saw a need for a studio to design and equip mostly Catholic chapels, as well as build religious artifacts.

So the DiCoccos created Liturgical Arts Studio, a subsidiary of the St. Jude Shop, with Louis DiCocco III as head.

It was the Havertown-based studio that Rossi contacted two months ago for help on the papal project.

"Msgr. Rossi from Washington called me," DiCocco said. "I immediately went down there with samples of wood, and fabrics, and wood stains."

Rossi laid out the specifications: The chair had to reflect the pope's status as global leader of the Catholic church. It had to blend with the crypt of the basilica, which would act as backdrop.

"It had to have [the pope's] coat of arms," DiCocco said. "It had to be stately. It had to suggest that he is the shepherd, the leader. It had to be unique - and worthy."

At the same time, the chair couldn't be too massive or ostentatious, the men agreed.

The two finally settled on a chair 5 feet, 9 inches high with a simple back and rounded arms. On the sides would be the raised image of a cross in matching wood.

The two flanking chairs would be similar, but not as tall or ornate. The kneelers would be plain, with cushioning for the pope's knees.

The men picked American walnut for its strength and beauty. They selected elegant ivory damask, a mixture of silk and wool imported from Belgium, for the seat and back cushions.

For the wood finish, the two decided on a quick-drying lacquer, with a hard surface.

"We didn't want anything glossy," DiCocco said. "It really complements the wood."

DiCocco hired Matt and John Huprich, a father-son team of cabinet makers in Perkasie, to do the actual carpentry.

"I was glad to bid on this. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said John Huprich, 48.

His father, Matt, 71, had been building custom-made church furnishings for the St. Jude shops for many years, and so the wood shop was a logical choice, the son said.

John Huprich ordered double the walnut he thought he needed, so that he could avoid the knots and make the wood grain appear symmetrical in the finished product.

The papal chair contains no nails or screws; it's made entirely from pieces chosen for their beauty and held together with dowels and glue.

Matt Huprich used a dye stain, rather than a heavy pigment, to accentuate, not darken, the walnut grain.

When the project was done, the DiCoccos and Huprichs were pleased, but also awestruck by its appearance.

So were the pint-sized pilgrims, children who trooped past it with their parents recently. The youngsters fell silent, as if they were in church.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This picture which appears as CW comes onto today's screen is a bit of a shock. To be quite honest, this chair looks exactly like a very upmarket commode.

Maybe that's what rendered the child-viewers speechless?