“As far as I know, Franciscan University is the only other place besides Medjugorje that has them” said Sister Isabel Bettwy, careful to emphasize the exclusive company in which Franciscan University finds itself.
She spoke of the Way of the Cross, the 15 bronze relief hillside installations which, together with the créche, the Portiuncula, the Marian grotto and the Tomb of the Unborn Child, collectively serve to perpetuate “those things which were key in the life of St. Francis,” she said.
The late Rev. Sam Tiesi, TOR, together with the late Rev. Michael Scanlan, TOR, the late Sister Rose DeFede and Bettwy spearheaded an effort to deliver to Steubenville that which they first experienced in Medjugorje. Specifically, Tiesi was moved by a series of Stations of the Cross on Cross Mountain, known locally as Križevac.
A young Italian artist, Carmelo Puzzolo, had himself visited Medjugorje some time before and after experiencing a profound conversion, looked to give back to the town and to the Virgin Mother. His contribution came in the form of meticulously crafted individual Stations, bronze reliefs to replace the post-and-picture Stations, at the time aiding locals in their pursuits of the Way of the Cross.
It was Bettwy who pursued Tiesi’s inclination. She located Puzzolo and learned his price for the casting of replica Stations to be transported to Steubenville for installation at Franciscan University upon their completion. The stations first implemented in Medjugorje in 1989 would shortly begin the 4,456 mile transatlantic voyage from Puzzolo’s hometown of Florence to Ohio.
The Medjugorje apparitions proved a miracle of Marian proportions; the ensuing financial backing and transportation of 15 heavy bronze relief sculptures from Italy to Steubenville proved no small miracle in itself. “We found benefactors,” she said.
At a time when the university was more than two million dollars in debt, Franciscan located sufficient financial backing not only to cover the full price of the project, but for individual crating, shipment and delivery upon arrival. Largely responsible for transportation logistics was Sister Rose DeFede, after whom the Faithful Franciscan alumnus award is today named.
“That’s how things happened in those days” Bettwy said simply. “All of that was done and paid for by benefactors.” She cited similar financial coverage for the university’s construction of the Portiuncula, when a woman by chance overheard Tiesi discussing the prospective project and offered substantial “seed” funding for groundbreaking.
As for installation of the bronze reliefs upon arrival, it was the university maintenance crew who drove the Stations themselves into the soil. Through a friend, Bettwy obtained Puzzolo’s original hand-drawn renderings for the Stations, which today hang in the St. Joseph Center. “You can see his autograph on the front panel” said Bettwy.
The university’s installation of the Way of the Cross, together with select other religious icons across campus, represented a collective attempt to recreate those items substantial to St. Francis. Bettwy said it was Scanlan’s idea “to put a cross on campus” which would mirror the hand-built, massive concrete cross from which Medjugorje’s own Cross Mountain derives its name, a work known today across campus as the Steel Cross.
Puzzolo, despite recent health complications, still lives today near Milan. The well-established fresco artist is also responsible for a masterful bronze relief rendition of the Rosary’s Glorious Mysteries, which today decorate Apparition Hill.
Bettwy emphasized the continued importance of the Stations as a method of prayer for all those on campus, sentiments echoed by the Rev. Nathan Malavolti, TOR, with specific regard to Christ’s humanity. “(Jesus) needed someone to wipe his face. He fell three times. The emphasis on Christ as both God and man is what comes through in the Stations of the Cross,” he said.
From the private Medjugorje conversion of an Italian artist to the quiet hillside of then-budding center of spirituality Franciscan University, Puzzolo’s Way of the Cross has long since served as a testament to veneration and openness alike. Before inspiring hundreds of thousands of students, Puzzolo’s 15 bronze reliefs, together the Stations of the Cross, represented the willingness of Bettwy, Tiesi, Scanlan and DeFede, to bridge the distance between possibility and actuality with a simple yes.