Missouri artist creates bas-relief sculpture for Pope Francis

Don Wiegand also created Mary, Mother of the Church sculpture in Laurie


When Don Wiegand was a sophomore at Mercy High School in St. Louis, his art teacher, Sister Corlita, made a comment to him that changed the course of his life.

“She told me that I drew like a sculptor,” Mr. Wiegand said.

That idea stuck with him and has led him to a successful career, creating likenesses of figures including Bob Hope, Amelia Earhart and the Blessed Virgin Mary — and, most recently, Pope Francis.

Mr. Wiegand was scheduled to present his bas-relief sculpture of Pope Francis to the pope at the Vatican on Sept. 8.

“I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” he joked. “(The Vatican) has such an art collection, like the pieta ... to be part of it? I don’t know what to say.”

This won’t be his first time at the Vatican. In 2001, Mr. Wiegand presented Pope St. John Paul II with a stainless steel maquette model of the Blessed Mother, a 22-inch version of his 14-foot statue at the National Shrine of Mary, Mother of the Church, in Laurie.

After Pope John Paul II’s death, Wiegand was told that the model was found in the pope’s private living quarters.

Mr. Wiegand’s portrait of Pope Francis will be displayed in the Casina Pio IV, home to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Mr. Wiegand’s longtime friend, Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, has been a liaison between him and the Vatican.

The idea to sculpt Pope Francis first came from Archbishop Emeritus Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis, who was impressed with Mr. Wiegand’s likeness of Pope St. John Paul II. That image is contained in the “The Eternal Priesthood” bas-relief on the wall of the Regina Cleri home for retired priests in St. Louis and was later made into medals and posters.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Don, you did a beautiful piece on John Paul; I think you really ought to start thinking about doing something on Francis,’” Mr. Wiegand recalled.

When Mr. Wiegand saw a photo of Pope Francis taken by Pat Raven — Peter Raven’s wife — he knew that was it.

Mr. Raven and other members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences were discussing some of their scientific findings with Pope Francis when the photo was snapped.

“It’s a very contemplative pose. He’s thinking about problems — he’s in deep thought about a lot of things, I’m sure,” Mr. Wiegand said. “I fell in love with the photo and decided to sculpt it.”

Mr. Wiegand worked on the sculpture — a bronze portrait mounted on walnut — on and off over the course of about five years, completing it in early 2022.

The sculpture is a three-quarter view, which means the body is turned slightly toward the viewer. To make sure he got every detail of the pope’s crucifix right, he asked the Vatican to send a copy.

Mr. Wiegand is proud to use his talents to honor both Pope Francis and the work of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, especially the academy’s work on climate change and other environmental issues.

“The more we can help each other and respect that God’s given us this beautiful planet — that’s what we need. That’s why I like the Academy of Sciences,” the artist stated.

Mr. Wiegand, who grew up in Chesterfield in the St. Louis archdiocese and remains a member of Ascension Parish, was “more nervous about the plane flight than meeting Pope Francis,” he said with a laugh.

He chose to wear his South American jade bolo tie for the occasion as a nod to Pope Francis’ Argentinian heritage.

He also packed his favorite easel — handed down from the man who invented cue cards in Hollywood, but that’s another story — and a green velvet cloth sewn by his mother, Claire, for the unveiling.

“I like that kind of energy,” he said. “This is not a commercial thing — it’s from the heart.”

While many of his other sculptures depict high-profile people in history or Hollywood, Mr. Wiegand also enjoys doing smaller-scale portraits or casts of hands for families.

“I love life,” he said. “I love depicting life. I don’t just sculpt famous people — I just get more recognition on some of the famous faces, I’d say. We are all important in the eyes of God, every soul.”

And as “just a guy from Gumbo, Missouri,” he’s never forgotten his roots. Many eyes have seen his sculpture of Pope Francis now, but his first audience was Sister Corlita and other friends from the Sisters of Mercy.

“I said, ‘I want you guys to see it first,’” he said. “I put it in front of them and unveiled it — they went nuts. They are just so sweet.”


Ms. Kosta is a reporter for the St. Louis Review and Catholic STL, publications of the St. Louis archdiocese.


A version of this article was published in the Sept. 2, 2022, edition of the St. Louis Review and is republished here with permission.