Our Stories | St. Michael’s Magazine: Viggo Rambusch 5T3

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Glass Ceilings

In April, when Pope Benedict XVI visits the United States, a St. Michael’s alumnus, Viggo Rambusch 5T3, will have a role in the ceremony. Rambusch and his colleagues have recently completed the mosaic in the Incarnation Dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., where His Holiness will celebrate Mass.

Financed mainly by the Knights of Columbus and dedicated last November, this nave dome contains 2.4 million tiles of coloured glass and rises 100 feet above the Basilica’s marble floor. It depicts such scenes as the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Wedding Feast at Cana and the Transfiguration. Rambusch designed and oversaw the entire fabrication in Italy. His firm had completed the Basilica’s first nave dome, the Redemption Dome, in 2005. Both domes measure 60 feet in diameter.

The Basilica’s domes were hardly the Rambusch firm’s first work on the National Shrine. In 1930, they contributed to its first chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. Since then, they’ve designed and fabricated stained glass windows, lighting fixtures, murals and more.

Nor will the Papal Mass be Viggo Rambusch’s first brush with prominent public ceremonies. Another happened in June 2006, with the unveiling of the memorial to the Manhattan firefighters who perished at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The Rambusch firm had created the bronze relief, described by The New York Times as “bold, literal, almost neo-classical.”

A liturgical artist and restoration specialist, Rambusch says he felt “touched and honoured” to be chosen for the commission. In creating it, he was inspired by values inculcated at St. Michael’s. Rambusch was one of scores of American students who enrolled in the College’s Western Course in the 1940s and 50sa year that gave them an equivalency to Grade 13, then the entrance requirement for UofT. “I chose St. Mike’s because I liked the idea of a Catholic education in a secular university,” says Rambusch, “something like Cardinal Newman’s concept.”

During his years at the College, he was very active in student organizations: President of St. Michael’s Student Administrative Council (SAC), a representative on UofT’s SAC and NFCUS (National Federation of Canadian University Students) and also Captain of the Debating Club.

The American-based firm, founded 108 years ago by Rambusch’s grandfather, has won acclaim in both the U.S. and Canada. Specializing in decorative metal work, stained glass and lighting, its Canadian clients include several Catholic churches, Markham’s Slovak Church of the Transfiguration, for example whose Byzantine Mother and Child is composed of five million miniature tiles the Canadian Senate Chamber and the chapel of the Cardinal Flahiff Basilian Centre, on the SMC campus. The firm’s most recent Canadian projects have been a splendid lighting installation for the main concourse in Calgary’s airport, lighting for the airports of Toronto and Winnipeg and for Alberta’s Jubilee Auditorium.

Producing a memorial to the 9/11 firefighters required great sensitivity and creativity. Measuring 56 feet in length and eight feet tall, the bronze bas-relief is dedicated to the 343 dead firefighters from 10 House, the home of Engine Company 10/Ladder Company 10, located directly across Liberty Street from the World Trade Center.

When the firm was first approached, the firefighters were interested in a display case for memorabilia related to the tragedy. “I told them, we don’t do display cases,” says Rambusch. “For one thing, they’re eventually subjected to vandalism.” The officials asked what he might suggest.

“Immediately there sprang to my mind Trajan’s column in Rome. Part of it is a big bronze bas-relief depicting this Roman emperor’s conquests. I met with Captain Harry Meyers and his team and we talked for two hours. As we talked, my associate Joseph Oddi was making sketches, attempting to capture the ideas we were tossing around. Captain Meyers asked what he was doing. When Joe told him, Captain Meyers asked to see the sketches. When he looked at them, tears came to his eyes. ‘That captures exactly what our vision was.’ So from that point on, we had our direction.”

The project, which took close to three years to complete, is mounted on the brick outer wall of Engine Company 10/Ladder Company 10. The upper part of the memorial consists of three panels. The middle section depicts the two towers at the instant the second plane hit. The two end sections show firefighters laying down hose lines, washing their faces at a hydrant, a fireboat on the horizon. Everything is in perfect detail, down to the equipment firefighters carry and the uniforms they wear. Below the three panels, a bronze strip is inscribed with the fallen firefighters’ names.

“One of the most memorable incidents occurred just before the firemen affixed the right hand panel”, Rambusch recalls. “One firefighter spontaneously wrote a note on the back of that section addressed to a dead buddy. Within minutes all the firemen present had written their own personal messages there. Then that section was affixed to the wall, with those messages never to be viewed by anyone else again. It was a very emotional day.”

The Papal Mass in April will be another one. Viggo Rambusch’s fellow SMC alumni will be forgiven if, every now and then during the TV coverage, they let their attention be drawn to the soaring mosaic domes created by their schoolmate’s firm.