A group of New Orleanians will travel to the Vatican on Nov. 15 to witness Pope Francis bless a statue of St. John Paul II, commissioned by New Orleanians as a gift to St. Louis Cathedral celebrating the city’s upcoming tricentennial.

The life-sized marble statue, the work of noted artist and sculptor Franco Alessandrini, was commissioned by the city’s American Italian Cultural Center. The group’s chairman, Frank Maselli, said Alessandrini approached him more than a year ago with the idea of a statue honoring the beloved pope and commemorating his 1987 visit to New Orleans. Maselli arranged a meeting between the artist and Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

“We brought a model of the statue and the Archbishop was ecstatic. He loved the idea and thought of it as the Archdiocese’s gift to the city of New Orleans for the tricentennial,” Maselli said. “It's going to be a permanent gift to the city and right in front of the oldest cathedral in the United States.”

Maselli’s group began raising the money necessary for the project and Alessandrini began working on the statue in his studio in Tuscany. The six-foot-tall statue depicts St. John Paul II, who died in 2005 and was canonized soon after, embracing two children.

“The marble came from the same quarry where Michelangelo used to get some of his marble, so it’s pretty significant,” Maselli said. Alessandrini is the sculptor behind many projects on display in New Orleans, including the Monument to the Immigrant at Woldenberg Park, a project which was spearheaded by Maselli’s late father, Joseph Maselli, the founder of the American Italian Cultural Center and American Italian Renaissance Foundation.

The blessing of the St. John Paul II statue by Pope Francis came about because of Maselli’s friendship with an Italian filmmaker, Gianni Bozzacchi, whose connections at the Vatican made a visit with Pope Francis possible. Bozzacchi is also producing a film for the American Italian Cultural Center on the statue, the process of creating it and the effort to commemorate Pope John Paul II’s 1987 New Orleans visit.

Maselli was there in September 1987 when the pope visited the city and celebrated an outdoor Mass near the UNO Lakefront Arena. “I sang in the choir,” Maselli remembered. “And it poured down raining right before he came. We were soaked in our choir robes. But as the pope drove in, the sun came out. We were thrilled to death.”

Maselli and a group of about 30 people from New Orleans will be at the Vatican for the blessing, along with Alessandrini and his family.

The statue is scheduled to be unveiled and dedicated at St. Louis Cathedral in January, to help kick off the city’s tricentennial celebration in 2018. The plaque will sit on a marble base outside of the cathedral under a plaque commemorating the pope’s 1987 visit to the cathedral.

The American Italian Cultural Center is still taking donations for the project. To donate, click here.