Vancouver is known internationally for its picturesque seawall at Stanley Park, being the host of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games, and its large population of Cantonese immigrants. Another location is the Downtown Eastside, infamous for being one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods accompanied by a plethora of social issues.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is often referred to as “Canada’s poorest postal code.” Although this is not the case statistically, as the city with the second highest cost of living in the country, those without a fixed-address congregate in this central Vancouver district since many social missions are located here to offer services for those living in poverty and its associated social issues.
Some of those issues include substance abuse and the opioid crisis, suicide, mental illness, prostitution, violent and petty crimes, homelessness, lifestyle diseases, and gentrification. The demographics of the Downtown Eastside contain a disproportionately larger populations of males, seniors, and Indigenous peoples.
Jesus Among the Poor
Vancouver’s historic Holy Rosary Cathedral is located just one block from the edge of the Downtown Eastside district. In an effort to shine a light on the social issues facing central Vancouver, the church installed a replica of a well-known sculpture at the entrance to remind the faithful of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, and to make a statement that the social issues don’t stop at the boundaries of the Downtown Eastside, but affects all Vancouverites.
The sculpture, titled “Homeless Jesus” was the work of Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz. It is a life-size bronze carving of Jesus, homeless, sleeping on a bench. A space is available for one person to sit at the feet of the statue. In a large city such as Vancouver, it’s not unusual to see such a sight on a regular basis.
The replica at Holy Rosary Cathedral was dedicated by Most Reverend John Michael Miller, CSB, the Archbishop of Vancouver in 2017.
Across the world, Schmalz has created roughly 100 copies of the full-size sculpture, including one in Vatican City. The original statue intended for St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto was declined, and installed at Regis College. The second was for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but was also declined. There are five locations of Homeless Jesus in Canada – Regis College in Toronto, St. James United Church in Montréal, St. Mary’s University in Calgary, and this one at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver are four.
The fifth one, located at St. Patrick’s Church in Hamilton, performed a ‘miracle’ and stopped a runaway garbage truck in 2018, saving it from crashing into oncoming traffic and pedestrians.
Despite the beauty of the statue and its synonymity with the message of the Gospel, especially Luke, along with the Christian social justice movement and the teaching of the Preferential Option for the Poor, there was negative reception of earlier copies of the statue.
Schmalz has created dozens upon dozens of religious statues during his career, many of which reflect themes from the Gospels. One of his most recent high profile pieces is Angels Unawares based off Hebrews 13:2. It was unveiled in St. Peter’s Square in December 2019 on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.
The Last Supper
Another one of Timothy Schmalz’s works is located in front of the Blessed Sacrament chapel at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak, Michigan, part of greater Detroit. People are welcome to sit down om one of the 12 seats at a granite table with a statue of Jesus as he breaks bread with a cup on the side, portraying The Last Supper. This piece was dedicated on October 2, 2006.
Schmalz writes on his website, “Our contemporary culture is in the same state today, not because of illiteracy, but because people are too busy to read. In this world of fast paced schedules and sound bites, Christian art creates ‘visual bites’ that introduce needed spiritual truths in a universal language.”