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One hundred and forty angels descended Friday upon the front plaza of the Basilica of St. Mary — not on wings, but with the help of a crane.

They belong to an enormous bronze sculpture, a replica of the original commissioned by Pope Francis and standing in St. Peter's Square in Rome, depicting 140 life-size men, women and children packed into an immigrant boat heading toward new lives. A pair of angel wings rise above the group.

Entitled "Angels Unawares" — a reference to a biblical passage that encourages the faithful to welcome strangers — the acclaimed sculpture arrived in Minneapolis as part of a national tour. In the weeks ahead, basilica leaders say, it will be a destination for religious and immigrant groups in Minnesota, many of whom plan to host prayer vigils, engage in storytelling, dance and hold other events at the site.

"We wanted to call attention to the plight of immigrants and refugees," said Johan van Parys, director of liturgy and sacred arts at the basilica parish, which long has been active in immigrant advocacy and education.

"Artworks engage [people] in a different way. There are people who won't go to a lecture or engage in political action. But they may drive by the basilica and hopefully be moved by this."

Organizers said that with anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise, it's important for people to remember that we were once all in the same boat. Visitors to the sculpture will be encouraged to photograph or video their own family's immigrant stories nearby and post them on social media and the basilica's website.

Enclosed in a metal cage, the 20-foot, 3-ton sculpture was lowered dramatically onto the basilica plaza by crane Friday morning. Basilica staffers and passersby stopped and stared at the bronze boat whose occupants reveal the scope of human migration.

"This is an African man having been forcibly removed from his homeland," said van Parys, gesturing toward a worried-looking figure. "This is a Polish woman fleeing communist Poland … an Irish boy escaping the potato famine. This is a Cherokee man walking the Trail of Tears. … Here's a Jewish man holding a Torah, escaping Nazi Germany …"

The basilica sculpture is a second casting by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, who was commissioned to create the first for Pope Francis. It was placed in St. Peter's Square in 2019, the first sculpture to be added to the famous plaza in 400 years, said van Parys.

The replica is touring eight cities in the United States before it is installed permanently this October at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Thousands of visitors are expected to view the sculpture. More than a dozen religious groups have signed on for vigils and prayers, including the Latino ministry of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and interfaith collaborations such as the partnership among St. Paul congregations from Lumen Christi Catholic Community, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Casa Guadalupana and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of St. Mary.

Bishop Donald Kettler of the St. Cloud Diocese will host a staff pilgrimage to the site and celebrate mass at the basilica as part of the diocese's efforts to better understand racial discrimination and cultural and ethnic diversity.

Minnesota's Advocates for Human Rights partnered with the basilica to create educational and social action material for its Angels Unawares web page.

"It is big and it's real and it's tangible," said Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director of the Advocates. "It is inclusive and historical … and reminds us of the impact of immigration policies on humans."

The monthlong event also includes a webinar about the artwork featuring artist Schmalz and Twin Cities Archbishop Bernard Hebda.

The public unveiling and opening ceremony will take place Sunday. The Rev. Kelly Sherman-Conroy, a board member of the Minnesota Council of Churches who will be among the speakers, said she appreciates that the artwork gives the public a view of migration from a wide lens and recognizes that Native people also were migrants.

"Some immigration was by choice, some by force," she said.

The Rev. John Bauer, rector of the basilica, was among those watching the process of moving the huge sculpture from truck to crane to plaza. He said he was pleased with the broad interest in the installation.

"It's going to be a busy month," Bauer said.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511