NORWALK — When Dean Gestal and his wife Janie were in London recently, they stayed across the street from the historic Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception in the center of the city. When Gestal went for a walk, he noticed a homeless person sleeping on a bench near the church, and upon looking closer, he realized it was someone he recognized … after he saw the nail wounds in the man’s feet.

What he encountered was the world-famous bronze sculpture titled, “Homeless Jesus,” by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, which depicts Christ as a homeless man under a blanket, sleeping on a park bench with his head and hands hidden.

“As I drew closer, I was awestruck,” said Gestal, Executive Director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Bridgeport. “When I saw the wounds in his feet, it brought the Passion of Our Lord to mind — his suffering and death on the cross to save our souls.”

Gestal was so moved that shortly afterward he contacted the sculptor, who recently unveiled a new National Life Monument near the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC. The colossal bronze sculpture celebrates the miracle of life and depicts a mother with a world-shaped womb and an unborn child in the center.

Gestal obtained a cast of Homeless Jesus and had it erected in front of the new headquarters of Catholic Cemeteries at 154 East Avenue in Norwalk. There are more than 100 worldwide, but the only other one in the New York metropolitan area is at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan. Another is in Rome, outside of the Papal Office of Charities on the street leading to St. Peter’s Basilica. The original was installed in 2013 at Regis College in Toronto.

Describing his encounter with the Homeless Jesus sculpture in London was “a wake-up call,” Gestal said, “I stood there for ten minutes, and my thoughts turned into prayer. That piece of art threw a spear into my heart and brought to mind so many other things in life we brush over. All of us have to ask, ‘How do we help the helpless?’ That’s what we deal with every day here.”

After a successful career on Wall Street, Gestal was called to lead Catholic Cemeteries. “God has a plan for all of us,” he said, “and for me it has been this new vocation in Cemeteries, which makes me think about what we have to do to improve the lives of others.”

The statue on the busy Norwalk street has evoked similar responses from people who pause to look at it, Gestal says. Some take photos, others sit down beside it and seem to pray. When rush-hour traffic is backed up at the intersection, cars stop while motorists stare in curiosity, at first not quite sure what they are looking at.

Schmalz, whose oeuvre is inspired by his Catholic faith and the Works of Mercy, believes that “Christian art is a weapon that can be used in a passive nihilistic society to awaken people to morality and spirituality embedded in our history, which we so arrogantly and foolishly pretend we do not need.”

He sees the Homeless Jesus as an artistic representation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’”

And Jesus, the king, will tell them, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

Schmalz says, “This is word for word from the Bible of how Jesus wants to be represented himself…as one of the marginalized.”

“Here we are in 2023 and this sculpture is going artistically viral,” he said. “It’s being installed everywhere in some of the most historic and significant places in the world,” including the centers of Munich and Amsterdam, and the entrance to Capernaum, where Jesus himself walked.

Kenn Devane, who handles community relations for Catholic Cemeteries, said: “What comes to mind when I see the sculpture of Homeless Jesus is ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’”

He believes people are uncomfortable when they encounter a homeless person, and that “Catholic Cemeteries is extending its ministry to the public street and asking people to consider that we are all equal in the eyes of God. You would feel differently about the person sleeping on the bench or in the train station if you knew it was Jesus. We want to make people think, and maybe in doing so, they will be kinder to the next person they encounter.”

The public display of the sculpture goes hand-in-hand with the Catholic Charities mission, Gestal says.

“What we do day to day, in one word, is deal with death,” he said. “Death is an end, but death is not THE end. We have to dig deep for answers. Life can become pretty routine for all of us, but life is not ours alone. The Homeless Jesus forced me to look at myself first and then others and the world around me. I want it to do the same for other people. Are we ready to meet our Maker? Is anyone ready? These are questions we have to ask ourselves, and this sculpture compels us to do that.”