Restoring religious statues 'a labor of love' for self-taught artist

BILLERICA -- Kevin Roy is not, technically speaking, a professional artist. Although he has repaired statues for decades, he has never advertised or charged for his services. But his reputation among the Catholic faithful in his community has given him plenty of opportunities to develop his skills -- and, he hopes, helped people contemplate the divine through art.

Roy grew up in the former St. Andrew Parish, now St. Matthew the Evangelist Parish in Billerica. He attended schools in Lowell and Lawrence and spent a few years in seminary, later earning his master's degree in theology. Today, he works for the Middlesex County Sheriff's Department.

In his free time, Roy repairs statues, a hobby that involves a variety of art forms, including carving, sculpting, and painting. Though he has worked on a handful of secular statues for friends and family, the vast majority of his projects involve religious statuary owned by Catholic parishes or laypeople.

In a Feb. 4 interview, Roy said he feels that any religious art -- whether a statue, an icon, or an entire church -- ought to give the viewer "a representation or a glimpse of what heaven is going to be like."

"When you see a piece of art or a representation of what is holy, it should evoke something in you. And if it doesn't, it's not doing its job," he said.

This was why, from an early age, Roy found himself irritated whenever he saw a statue in poor condition, whether it had rust, peeling paint, or missing parts.

He first attempted to repair such damage when he was 12 years old. His sister had a statue of the Infant of Prague, and he had two small statues that had been First Communion gifts, depicting the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother. When pieces of the statues broke off over time, Roy took it upon himself to fix them. The results were good, and he continued doing similar projects as he got older, such as repairing people's lawn statues of saints.

"Any time I would see a (damaged) statue, whether it was in a church or anywhere, I always asked if I could repair it, because I couldn't stand the look of something that didn't look good," Roy said.

He was not the first in his family to try his hand at this kind of craft. His grandfather had repaired statues that he received through the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Lawrence. Roy had also watched his father carve wood, and thought that the process would be similar.

For a statue missing a nose or a finger, Roy explained, he would make new pieces with plaster of Paris, though today there are better products like wood putty. After the substance hardens, it can be carved and sanded into the desired shape.

Roy said that part is easy, and the truly difficult part is the painting. As a child, he took lessons for painting on canvas, and he has found that knowledge of colors helpful as he searches for the right shades to make a piece look realistic.

"I'm not a professional, but at least the stuff that I've done looks professional. And it's taken all these years to perfect how to do it," Roy said.

His clientele grew when he was in his 20s and 30s, as news of his work spread through word of mouth and people began contacting him with requests for repairs. Over the years, many people have also given him damaged or unwanted statues. The last time he counted, he had over 300 statues in his cellar, ranging in size from six inches to six feet.

Now in his 50s, Roy continues to repair statues in his spare time, and cites his lack of time as a reason why he does not sell the pieces or charge for his services. When someone wants a statue of a particular saint, he checks his inventory, and if he has it, he repairs it and gives it to them, knowing it will go to a good home.

While statues of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are common, he also has depictions of less common saints, such as St. Jude, St. Joan of Arc, Our Lady of La Salette, and Canadian saints Andre Bessette and Anne de Beaupre. One statue Roy intends to keep for himself depicts St. Peter Chanel, a Marist father who was martyred in 1841. He is the namesake of Roy's father, who was born on the 100th anniversary of the saint's death, and Chanel is also the middle name of both Roy and his son.

In addition to work for individuals, Roy has also completed projects for various parishes. He worked on all the Stations of the Cross at Sacred Hearts Parish in Haverhill. When his home parish was restored in 2001, he treated all the statuary there.

"It was a labor of love, and something that I enjoy doing," he said.

The biggest project Roy ever completed was in Lowell, at a replica of Our Lady of Lourdes' grotto near the former Franco-American School. In honor of the school's 100th anniversary in 2008, Roy repainted the statues of St. Bernadette and the Blessed Mother as well as the crucifix that stands over 10 feet tall at the top of the grotto. Three years later, he also repainted the statues for the Way of the Cross on the 100th anniversary of their installation.

When someone enters a church or sees a piece of religious art, Roy said, it should "lift your mind, heart, and soul heavenward, because that's the purpose of it."

He added, "it needs to be something that evokes your mind and heart towards heaven, because that's our ultimate goal."