By Sister Michele Schroeck
One summer day, when I had a lot of boxes to bring to Mercy Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, I brought along a few middle school boys from the House of Mercy neighborhood outreach to help me. The boys commented on how big the place was and wanted to know if it was a school. I explained that it was a house where older Sisters of Mercy live. Their eyes grew wide as they looked around, amazed at seeing a church and cafeteria inside a house.
After we were finished unloading and moving all the boxes, I took them to the dining room for some ice cream. While we were enjoying our treat, Mutasim, a 6th grader who had arrived from Syria about a year prior, asked if a large statue of the Blessed Mother Mary in the garden was the Statue of Liberty. “No, but that’s a good guess,” I said. “I can see why you would say that!”
The statue, of a woman wearing a long robe, indeed looked like the Statue of Liberty. In this instance, though, her open hands were at her side instead of holding a torch. Did he know that we often refer to Mary, the Mother of God, as “Our Lady”? Our Lady of Liberty would indeed be a good name for Mary. This young man’s question prompted me to do a little research into the history of this iconic statue in New York Harbor (with special thanks and credit to the National Park Service and the Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation).
The Statue of Liberty was a gift of friendship from the people of France to the United States. Dedicated on October 28, 1886, it is recognized universally as a symbol of freedom and democracy.
Many historians say the statue was modeled after Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom. Others say that sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi was inspired by the figures guarding the Nubian tombs in Abu Simbel, Egypt. In a proposal for a large public monument for the Suez Canal, he designed a statue of a woman in a robe representing Egypt and called her “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia.” Maybe the Statue of Liberty was modeled after an Arab woman!
Some claim that the Statue of Liberty was designed to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States following the Civil War—there is a broken shackle and chains at her feet—and may have been modeled after an African American woman.
The Statue of Liberty stands on Liberty Island, near Ellis Island, where about 14 million immigrants entered the United States between 1886 and 1924. She was a reassuring sign of welcome to many who made long, arduous trips to the United States in search of freedom and opportunity. She has been referred to as “Mother of Exiles” and was a symbol of hope to generations of immigrants.
On the pedestal on which she rests are engraved these words: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Taken from the poem, “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, who wrote it to help raise funds for the pedestal, the words ring true to all who seek the protection of Our Lady of Liberty to this day.
I agree with young Mutasim that maybe the statue of the Blessed Mother is really “Our Lady of Liberty,” another name for Mary, the mother of God. May Mary continue to shine her light and provide a welcome to all who are marginalized yet maintain hope of a better life ahead.