RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There is a statue on 115th Street in Manhattan that's long been a touchstone for Italian Catholics, a life-size homage to the Madonna. People love this statue. There's even an annual festival named after her. But over the course of the Madonna's 131 years, she was beginning to show her age a bit. And parishioners said it was time for a makeover. For The Seams, an occasional series about fashion as culture, Jacki Lyden followed the Madonna's transformation.
JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: From high above the altar, the Blessed Mother at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church has watched over her flock for more than a century. This Virgin Mary statue came over from Polla, Italy in 1884. And according to her followers, she's healed the sick and given hope to the hopeless. Pam Pisacano loves her.
PAM PISACANO: Because she's so real. When you look at her, she's real. Her hair, her face, she looks at you as you're talking. And when you're talking, you talk to her from your heart. And you know she's going to grant you - and she really does grant things.
LYDEN: She's credited with so many miracles that Pope Pius X gave her a rare Catholic honor. He coronated her in 1904. At that time, East Harlem was solidly Italian. But the Irish controlled the jobs and the parishes. The Irish bishops didn't like the festive way Italians worshiped, parading their icon in the streets. The Irish forced the Italians to hold mass in the basement of Mount Carmel. The Blessed Mother was not allowed upstairs until 1923. Danielle Oteri is an art historian.
DANIELLE OTERI: We know that her first dress was a very simple brown frock. And it was covered with the jewels that had been donated, which served as sort of a de facto savings account for the church. Nobody would steal from the Madonna herself. The dress was redone in 1954.
LYDEN: But the porcelain statue itself hadn't been repaired in 131 years. It was aging, cracking, deteriorating. A church trustee's husband lovingly did those repairs himself. Her new ivory, silk satin dress, cape and the infant Jesus' gown were signed by Linda and Tom Platt, fashion designers. Now, normally a client comes for fittings to the Platts' studio.
TOM PLATT: But they didn't want her to leave the church. And so we had to come and take measurements. I did three - I think three...
LINDA PLATT: Muslins...
T. PLATT: Muslin fittings for her. We came up and fitted the Muslims. And, you know, we didn't have to think about commerciality or production in any way. It was simply a labor of love.
LYDEN: The church held raffles to cover expenses. The Platts donated months of labor on evenings and weekends. They sent the garments to India for intricate, hand-stitched gold beadwork embroidery. Tom Platt made the booties for the baby Jesus.
T. PLATT: I haven't crocheted anything in years. But when I saw him, I said, well, no one would have a gown that fancy without having something on his feet.
LYDEN: To match his and his mother's solid gold crown, of course. Again, parishioner Pam Pisacano.
PISACANO: This crown has all jewels on it. And the baby's crown is all gold and all jewels. Everything is beautiful. This is all gold. And that's - look, the little baby has little gold slippers on. Look, Jacki, this is so cute, right?
LYDEN: Father Marian Wierzchowski is Our Lady of Mount Carmel's pastor. He says the Madonna's rejuvenation inspires the working-class congregants of many nationalities to refresh their devotion.
MARIAN WIERZCHOWSKI: Haitians people, Polish people, Spanish people, Italians, you know, this is not a, you know, rich Manhattan, you know, downtown. But, you know, people, they give what they can. And that's the most important, a gift of heart.
LYDEN: Last weekend, the redone Madonna made her grand entrance.
TERZO VINCI: (Foreign language spoken).
LYDEN: Father Terzo Vinci, an elderly Italian priest, celebrated the Madonna's return during the mass.
VINCI: She came out of the beauty parlor, a spiritual beauty parlor, rejuvenated. Made up. New hair, I said, new face, new hands.
LYDEN: A spiritual beauty parlor. The crowd raised its hands in reverence all through mass. Helen Bilodeau, a church member since 1981, says the Blessed Mother means the world to her.
HELEN BILODEAU: I think she looks beautiful. She looks like a new bride - her face, her hair, her clothes. I feel happy. I feel joyful that she's back, you know.
LYDEN: Dozens of people pulled out their cell phones for a photograph after church. Our Lady of Mount Carmel simply looked on and smiled, radiant in her new outfit. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.