The pilgrimage of St. Boniface
A statue of Germany’s patron saint, lost following a church fire, turns up at an Avon antique shop
Like a seven-foot-tall peripatetic garden gnome, the statue of St. Boniface will be returning home after a sixty-six-year absence.
The statue represents the patron saint of Germany and namesake of a South Wedge church. Its story begins in 1886 on today’s Gregory Street, where it stood in an alcove above the massive center door of the Gothic Revival church. Holding a staff in one hand and a book pierced by a sword in another, St. Boniface looked down upon a large German community who brought their devotion for him when they immigrated to Rochester.
The German’s reverence for the saint was reflected in the church they built to honor him. It was 130 feet long and sixty-three feet wide with a bell tower rising 195 feet. The newly arrived Americans married there, baptized their children, and sent them to the adjacent school, where all the subjects were taught in German. For more than half a century, the church remained the center of religious and social life for a large immigrant community.
Then on November 6, 1957, a “fateful day” as described in the church’s official history, a worker’s fire pit on the roof ignited a “great fire.” Fed by high November winds, the flames engulfed the nineteenth-century church. The streets filled with people from all around the city who came to watch the great church burn down; others heard about it on TV and radio.
The next morning, the building was a complete ruin. The statue of St. Boniface was photographed on his back in mud and ash in front of the blackened building. The following April, the Atlas Wrecking Company dismantled the church and carted away St. Boniface.
In 1960, a modern white brick church rose in place of the demolished building, and inside, a figure of St. Boniface was painted on the wall behind the altar. The old statue of St. Boniface was lost in church history until a man named Jim Jerris came on the scene.
Jerris, owner of the Trading Post in Avon, Livingston County, has been liquidating estates for decades. His store brims with antiques and collectibles from a $10 china vase to a $10,000 iron horse. In nearby Caledonia, he lives in the historic Wadsworth Mansion, itself a showcase for the antiques old and beautiful.
In June, Jerris was emptying a house and grounds in Irondequoit and discovered a garden statue was part of the sale. It had stood under a leafy magnolia tree so long that its cement base had sunk into the ground. Along with the statue, Jerris discovered a newspaper article about it in a desk drawer.
The article detailed St. Boniface’s journey after the fire. It was auctioned off in a WXXI public television fundraiser and bought by Daniel Hofman, the director of the now-defunct Browncroft Nursery whose uncle and aunt had been married at St. Boniface. Hofman decided to give the statue to his next-door neighbors who were devout Catholics.
In moving the half-ton cast iron statue to Avon, Jerris and his two helpers did what the Atlas Wrecking Company did with a truck and crane. “When we were unloading it off the truck, it started to fall,” says Jerris. “I didn’t want it to fall on the boys, so I grabbed on, and it slid down my leg.”
St. Boniface made it safely to the ground outside The Trading Post, but Jerris’s leg was blackened by a massive hematoma from his hip to ankle. “The doctor wanted me in traction,” Jerris says. And yet he was able to walk and never stopped work despite his injury. Though Jerris is not attributing his strange ability to continue working when his doctor told him he was incapacitated to the intervention of a saint, he won’t rule it out either.
For a month or so, St. Boniface stood outside the store, still clutching his Bible with the protruding sword handle; his other arm upraised although empty of his staff of office.
“People have come in and offered me $2,000 and then $4,000 [for the statue],” says Jerris—but he didn’t sell it.
One day, Trading Post manager Brian “Bubba” Caron was meeting friends in the South Wedge. “I was eating lunch at the Tap & Mallet, and I told my friends about finding the statue,” says Caron.
“They says St. Boniface Church was just down the street. I thought it was no coincidence, and I told Jim about the church. He says we should donate it to the church.”
“It’d be the right thing to do,” says Jerris. “I feel it needs to go back home.”
At the time of publication, Caron and staff at St. Boniface Church are making arrangements to transfer the statue. Perhaps there’ll be a German band, some raising of mugs, newspaper and TV cameras invited, all prepared to welcome back the long forgotten icon of the old German parish.
Who was St. Boniface?
The eighth-century patron saint of Germany was actually born Winfred or Winfrith in Devon, England, in 672.
He became a monk and spent most of his adult life studying and teaching before he moved on to missionary work. His first attempts at converting heathens in Frisia in Northern Germany were unsuccessful, so he went to Rome to confer with Pope Gregory II. The pope renamed him St. Boniface, or “doer of good,” and sent him off to southern Germany.
One of his largest conversions came about after chopping down a giant sacred oak that the residents believed was protected by the thunder god Thor. When no lightning bolts followed the hewing, thousands converted. He founded monasteries throughout Germany, and, in 746, he was appointed archbishop of Mainz.
Still, his early failures in Frisia drew him back to the area. He and several dozen companions were attacked by local robbers. During the attack, he held the Bible above his head as protection, but the robber’s sword went through the book and St. Boniface.