The Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of the most recognizable images worldwide; the heart of Jesus shines brightly with divine love. You’ll find it used in historical iconography and illustration as well as contemporary tattoo work, clothing and jewelry. At Saint Martin’s University, visitors and students alike are welcomed to campus by the stunning Sacred Heart of Jesus statue at the top of the main grand staircase. Installed 100 years ago, it’s become a focal point and symbol of the school’s Benedictine values and welcoming spirit.

SMU-Sacred-Heart-statue-1919
Installed in 1919, the Sacred Heart of Jesus was finished on-site and restored in the 1970s. Photo courtesy: Steve Biber

The Sacred Heart is believed to celebrate the humanity of Jesus and his immense love for mankind. The religious Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus began in the late 1600s and falls annually 19 days after Pentecost, with the next one taking place June 28, 2019.

That perfectly coincides with the centennial anniversary of Saint Martin’s Sacred Heart statue. Crafted by Charles Biber, it’s a testament to community, generosity and longevity. Biber’s grandson, Steve Biber, never met his grandfather but loves the longstanding legacy of his craft.

Charles Biber was a professional sculptor and stone mason who first learned the trade in Germany. “There is much of his work still around,” says grandson Steve. “Works on Holy Rosary Church, First Presbyterian Church, Calvary Cemetery, Bellarmine High School, the Masonic Temple, Jason Lee Middle School, Heidelberg Brewery, and probably others all in Tacoma were done by him. He also created several pieces at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, Idaho. A church in Yakima has statues of his—and I’m sure other places that I don’t know. He also helped with the Parliament Buildings in Victoria B.C.; I sometimes see that type of work around and wonder if it is his.”

At the time of the installation, early Saint Martin’s school newspaper The Martian describes how “during the months of May and June we had often watched the artist-sculptor, Mr. Charles Biber, of Seattle, as he skillfully and with a wonderful trained hand chipped out bit after bit of the hugh [sic] stone that was later to become the beautiful statue we now enjoy.”

SMU Sacred Heart statue Charles Biber
The statue was carved by German-trained sculptor Charles Biber 100 years ago. Photo courtesy: Steve Biber

It came to life slowly and organically. The article continues, “The block from which the statue was cut and moulded here, of marble dust and cement. Measuring nearly ten feet in height and weighing almost three tons, it seemed entirely incapable of ever being anything else but a big cumbersome piece of rock. But we were soon disillusioned for as the days and weeks passed by, the rough shapeless stone gradually took the outlines of the small statue that the sculptor used as a model.”

The piece was a gift from “the men of Western Washington, who, under the auspices of the Knights of Columbus took part during the month of July, 1918, in the first Laymen’s Retreat ever held in this state.” They hoped it would “ever stand as a monument not only to their gratitude but to their sterling Catholicity and their devotion to the Divine Heart of Jesus.”

“I am very proud of the statue and all of his other work,” says Steve Biber. “You don’t see that kind of work being done around here anymore.” School officials were so pleased with the final results that they sent Charles Biber a beautifully penned poem of thanks.

SMU Sacred Heart statue Steve Biber
Steve Biber is proud of his grandfather’s work and the legacy he has left. Photo courtesy: Steve Biber

Says the note’s author: His latest work when all complete/Will be the pride of Puget Sound/The image of a heart that beat/With love divine on Calvary’s mound…We wish our Sculptor all that’s best/We will regret with him to part;/His memory will long with us rest/In that prime, well done work of art.

Saint Martin’s students, faculty, staff and monks, along with community members, have enjoyed the presence of the statue at the top of the Old Main staircase for the last century.

Fr. Kilian Malvey, O.S.B. ’64, professor of English and religious studies, has fond memories of encountering the Sacred Heart statue during his daily walk to noontime prayers. As Fr. Kilian tells it, “In the early 1960s I was manager of the Saint Martin’s College and High School bookstore. The bookstore was located in the lower campus approximately where the Marcus Pavilion presently stands. Every weekday, as the tower bells rang for noon prayer, I had to drop what I was doing, race madly up the front staircase in time for prayer in the Abbey chapel. When I reached the top of the grand staircase I would be totally out of breath, with painful lungs, realizing that as soon as the noon prayer was finished I had to race back down to the bookstore to accommodate the high school and college students who would be in to purchase school supplies, books, hamburgers and shakes from the snack bar during the noon hour. So many times after reaching the top of the staircase gasping for breath, I often found myself questioning my monastic vocation, ‘Was it really worth all of this?’ At the top of the staircase, fortunately, looming large in front of me was the stone statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with the biblical words of Jesus quoted at the base of the statue:

SMU Sacred Heart statue installation
Saint Martin’s staff hope to begin tours of their amazing iconography, artwork, and campus landmarks. Photo courtesy: Steve Biber

‘Come to me all you that labor
and are burdened
and I will refresh you.’
(Matthew 11.28)

It was actually these daily encountered words of Jesus that reassured me, in a very personal way, that in spite of the assignment I didn’t really want, in spite of the pressure of operating the store pretty much on my own, the daily painful gallop up the hundreds of stairs in time for prayer, these words of Jesus, somehow, reassured me, ‘Yes, it was worth it!’ I believe those words, ‘Come to me all you who are burdened…’ apply to each one of us as members of the human community. It seems to me that we each have a responsibility to be instruments of God’s mercy and justice, to be available to those who are burdened and suffering, to be open to and accepting of those who are in need, especially those who are overwhelmed by life’s hardships and difficulties. Those words, spoken by Jesus 2,000 years ago, should be words heard today in a world burdened by suffering, injustice and prejudice.”

The statue was refurbished somewhat in the 1970s, but beyond that very little has changed since its installation. The school has other donated artwork, statuary, and icons on the grounds and hopes to organize casual tour groups of their collection in the future. View more of Biber’s work online or schedule a visit soon to enjoy the statue in person.

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