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Divine statues.

Sanctuary Museum

Field review by the editors.

Lakewood, Ohio

Lou McClung can't forgive the Catholic Church for the 1960s. During those turbulent years the Vatican approved sweeping changes to make Catholicism look modern. "They took away the Communion rails, they painted over the murals on the walls, they threw the statues in the garbage," said Lou.

Child Jesus and Pieta.

Forty years later, Lou was repairing orphaned Catholic statues as a hobby when he learned that the local diocese was shuttering dozens of churches. He feared that what little Catholic art remained in northeast Ohio was about to disappear. Lou somehow convinced the diocese to set aside one of the doomed churches -- Saint Hedwig's -- and within a few months he had transformed it into what was originally called the Museum of Divine Statues (Its named was changed to the Sanctuary Museum in 2020).

Eyeballs on a plate.

With his faithful Chihuahua and his background as a professional makeup artist, Lou was an unlikely savior.

He gutted the church. "It was all 1970s and gross," Lou said. "There was no way I was gonna roll like that." He salvaged stained glass windows and architectural bits from the closed parishes and installed them in the museum, giving Saint Hedwig's a complete interior makeover. Then Lou used his knowledge of highlights, shading, and color to repaint the statues, often much better than they'd been painted before. His job as a professional image-enhancer was ideal training.

Seeing Lou's work, you realize that most glamour models have the same facial make-up as Catholic religious statues: that airbrushed, beyond-perfect look.

Each statue in the museum sits in its own pool of light and is displayed at eye level. It adds to their drama, since they were often kept in dark places and in lofty, reverential nooks in their former churches. Visitors can now lean in to see the blood dripping from Saint Sebastian's chest peppered with arrows, or admire the glassy shine of Saint Lucy's eyeballs, which she carries on a dinner plate. There's Joan of Arc in battle armor, cadaverous Jesus on a slab, hearts impaled with swords, disembodied cherub heads winging their way out of clouds.

Lou McClung works on Mary.

"If anyone ever gets weirded out about anything, it's always that dude in the middle," said Lou, referring to the museum's centerpiece statue of Saint Nepomucene. The 13th century martyr was once part of an altar, displayed prone as if pulling open his robe to reveal one of his actual bones. "Rats ate a hole in his wig," said Lou, who plans to accessorize the saint with an official biretta pompom hat.

Lou told us that he'd never been to Europe, and it probably helped him create his own, unique version of a classic, traditional Catholic church. He even built a viewing window into his workshop so visitors can watch statue restorations in progress. "Some people thought I was frickin' crazy," said Lou of his project, but it's clear that he loves the art and admires its ability to inspire. And he doesn't mind it if people stop by to gawk at statues such as Saint Francis, who stands next to a human skull because he constantly contemplated death.

Divine statues.

"Our mission," said Lou, referring to himself and possibly the Chihuahua, "is to introduce this to a new generation. We're going to make this hip again."

Also see: Last Supper Museum

Sanctuary Museum

12905 Madison Ave., Lakewood, OH
I-90 exit 166. Drive north on 117th St. for about one mile. Turn left (west) onto Madison Ave. and drive half-mile. The museum will be on the left, between Dowd and Halstead Aves, in the small Saint Hedwig Church, made of tan bricks. Parking lot is behind the church.
W 10-2, Sa 12-4 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $12. (cash only)
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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