When Patrick Lentz first moved to Revere with his family, the 5-year-old and his brothers eagerly took to the front yard to play a game of hide-and-seek. As Lentz crawled under the limbs and leaves of the front bushes, in the back of the foliage he saw a small white statue of a woman.
It was a Virgin Mary statue – long forgotten by a previous homeowner.
It made an impression on the little boy, and the phenomenon of Virgin Mary lawn statues – so common in Revere and other nearby locales – continuously drew his interest as he grew up.
Often, as he went through elementary school, he would search out Virgin Mary statues and shrines in his neighborhood that had particular intrigue – including one large lawn shrine near his childhood home that he actually got brave enough to approach. It opened up a whole new world of wonderment to him when he found two old dimes made of mercury under her pedestal.
Also, when he would walk to the McKinley School for junior high from his home on upper Vane Street, he would count the steps between sitings of a Virgin Mary statue. There were so many that he often wouldn’t get very high up the ladder in his counting exercise.
These days, though, those lawn statues are becoming less and less common as the city changes both culturally and religiously, but Lentz’s fascination with the Virgin Mary lawn ornament has continued and was recently revived when he saw them disappearing one by one. It was enough to push the 52-year-old professional photographer to take his camera out and begin “hunting” for what remained of Revere’s Virgin Mary’s.
That three-year journey has resulted in the recently published photo book, ‘Our Lady of the Lawns: The Madonnas of Revere, Mass.’
Lentz, of Charles Avenue, has photographed more than 300 of the Revere Madonna statues, and many of them are contained in his book. It has been an exercise in self-discovery, he said, as well as community discovery and documentary of a part of Revere’s fading Post-World War II culture.
The idea came to him a few years back when he decided to visit his childhood home on his way to the Home Depot. That led to a walk to the cemetery to visit the graves of relatives. As he walked back from Woodlawn to Vane Street – he caught himself counting his steps unconsciously – stopping and starting every time he passed a Virgin Mary statue.
“It all just came back to me as I stared at one of the little statues,” he said. “All of the memories from my childhood about these objects and the fascination I had with them. I decided that, as a photographer, I had to document them.” At first, he believed he would only find about 50, and he wanted to capture them artistically and show off the maximum kitschy-ness of the icon – and probably not in a complimentary way. After all, outside of Revere, Somerville, Medford and some other haunts of traditionalism – the culture of Virgin Mary lawn ornaments is virtually unheard of and seen as a little odd.
However, in his journey – while noting that he no longer considers himself Catholic or religious – Lentz found that the Virgin Mary statues needed honorable treatment in his book – that they meant something to others and that they had begun to mean something to him.
“I was extremely religious when I was a kid,” he said. “I no longer consider myself a Catholic and I don’t believe in the Virgin Mary, but I have to say I like the idea of it. I loved these statues as a kid and then in my 20s I became more agnostic and remember that I would walk past them and roll my eyes. I thought they were so ridiculous. Now, I’ve found in doing this that I’ve grown really fond of them again. My intention was at first for them to be shown really kitschy. I saturated the exposure and made the color overblown.
“However, I was meeting a lot of Revere people as I took the pictures of their statues and people were telling me the story of their statue,” he continued. “I began to realize the statues meant something to people and were special to the owners. I began to photograph them differently and became fond of all of them. The older people always have fascinating stories – sometimes histories of a family statue that go back 75 or more years.”
As his fondness grew of the statues, so did the hunt for them.
He laid down some ground rules – such as he would not drive to find them; he could only walk and discover them as he went. It was part of the process of documenting the culture in an authentic – and not artificial – way.
“I will never accept a ride to find statues, and at first I didn’t want anyone telling me where they were,” he said. “I came around to the latter, but I really like to find them blindly. It’s kind of exciting in a sense. It’s like going out hunting – like shooting an animal with a gun. So, a lot of times, I refer to it as hunting down Mary.”
Lentz expanded his territory to Somerville, Medford, Chelsea and even Dorchester. Anywhere a statue could be found, he was there to document it. However, coming back to Revere was always special because he could hunt down statues he had seen growing up, or statues that had long been forgotten and were very old.
Revere also, in his estimation, has probably one of the highest populations of Virgin Mary’s in all of Greater Boston, which also made it worthwhile.
“I would say cities around here with the most statues would be Somerville in the lead, but Revere is very close behind,” he said. “We have a lot of statues in backyards and front yards and hidden in little spots. Medford also has a lot and I like their statues because they are charming.”
The hunt has also yielded some interesting stories; such as the fact that one Revere Street area family has a statue that they believe moves around the yard.
“They’ll put it in one place and the next day it has moved to another area of the yard,” said Lentz. “They told me it has happened for years. They told me the reason is they had a cousin who was a priest and when he died, they put his Rosary beads around the neck of the Mary statue. Since then, the 76-year-old statue appears to move around the yard without explanation.”
Lentz said he isn’t a believer in the supernatural, but he has a few stories that he – too – cannot explain.
“I will go halfway down a street looking for new statues, and then I’ll stop and turn around,” he said. “Suddenly, something will tell me to continue on; that there are more at the end of the street. When I go to the end of the street, there are a whole bunch of them. That happens all the time, especially on dead end streets.”
In Revere, one rarity is more common that in other places – that rarity being the “bathtub Mary.” The bathtub Mary is the trend where old claw-footed bathtubs are buried in the ground vertically to create a half-circle shrine. Inside the exposed half-circle, the Virgin Mary statues are placed along with other articles.
“The bathtub Mary is quite rare, but we have quite of few of them here in Revere,” he said. “I was quite shocked at how many we have.”
The bathtub Mary, he said, came about after World War II when people began to make money again and wanted to remodel their homes. In the process, they would often re-do the bathroom. That meant pulling out the old, claw-footed tubs (which are now very popular again) and replacing them with something more modern – oftentimes a tiled shower/tub combination. The conundrum of the effort was always what to do with the old tub – which was heavy and hard to get rid of. So, in order to re-use it and save salvage costs, many folks would dig a hole and place the tub vertically in the hole – leaving only the top half exposed. That created an impromptu shrine for their Virgin Mary statues. Thus was born the bathtub Mary – a phenomenon quite popular in Revere. However, like the entire trend, it is a fading relic of a time past – removed by new homeowners or covered up by overgrown bushes.
Many of the statues have been removed, trashed or put up for sale on the Internet. Lentz bought his own statue recently over the Internet from a young man who bought a house and didn’t want the Virgin Mary in his yard.
Lentz also said he recently observed a new homeowner on North Shore Road taking down a statue in the front yard that had been cemented in the ground and in place since he was a kid. The homeowners, he said, who appeared to be from another region of the country, had likely knocked it over with a sledgehammer to get rid of it.
All of it adds up to a dying tradition that was once as common as green grass and leaves on the trees. While the Virgin Mary lawn statues are not gone by any means, there were once many, many more, and those that remain are often in disrepair or forgotten – likely to also be removed soon.
“I know that as a kid there were a lot more than now,” Lentz said. “I find all these little areas where they have them, but there are a lot more areas where they had them years ago and they’re gone. You’ll find empty shells or shrines. They just disappear…It’s part of the culture of the city, obviously. I find it very charming to see that the ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ statues have popped up from the Spanish community and that the Vietnamese community has begun to put up their Virgin Mary statues. However, there are not going to be any great manufacturing booms of Virgin Mary statues again unless there is some great event that compels people to go back to it. Churches are smaller than they were before, and that also plays into it. There is a history here that I think needs to be recorded. Many of these statues in Revere that I have found are a lot older than I am.”
Lentz’s full-color, hardcover book can be purchased online by visiting blur.by/1tcS0wu. The photographer – whose studio is based in the South End – can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (617) 605-1054.