A woman paints a statue. Flophina Morris Modeste works with the statue of Saint Stanislaus, which is more than 100 years old. (OSV News photo/courtesy Flophina Morris Modeste)

For Venezuelan-born Catholic, restoring much-loved sacred images is act of devotion

(OSV News) — Her friends and family call her “Phina.” She was born in Táchira, Venezuela, in 1969 and has lived in the New York borough of Queens for more than a decade. For the last several years, she has been restoring sacred images, which she does with great faith and dedication.

Recently, Phina — whose full name is Flophina Morris Modeste — restored an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the request of Bishop Octavio Cisneros, retired auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn. “Of the images I have restored, the largest number are of the Sacred Heart of Jesus!” she told OSV News.

Years ago, Morris Modeste never imagined her hands would spend hours restoring these symbols of Catholic devotion. In her native Venezuela, she earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Universidad Católica Cecilio Acosta. She also is a graduate of the graphic design program at the Instituto Antonio José de Sucre and fashion design at the Universidad Monseñor de Talavera. She has achieved many accomplishments in her professional career in her country, including as dean of three programs at the Universidad Monseñor de Talavera and helping lead the department of Culture and Fine Arts of the State of Táchira.

Morris Modeste came to the United States 12 years ago when her son, a promising basketball player in her country, won a scholarship to study. Since then, many things have happened; among the most important, she met her husband.

In recent years, her life as a mother and wife took up all her time until one day, Father John Tino, then administrator of St. Benedict Joseph Labre Church, invited her to rejoin the working force.

So in 2019, Morris Modeste began working part-time as a parish assistant and eventually had the opportunity to return to art thanks to restoration work. Father Felix Sanchez, pastor of St. Pius V Church, which she regularly attends, commissioned her to restore an image of the Sacred Heart.

Since then, images of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Holy Infant Jesus of Prague, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr and other Sacred Heart of Jesus images, among others, have passed through her hands.

Parishioners and acquaintances frequently commission Morris Modeste to restore religious images that they have in their homes and have a deep sentimental value.

A year ago, her health caused her to go through moments of anguish. “As a result of so much sanding, my vocal cords were affected, and there came a time when I was very hoarse. I went to the doctor, and he told me that it seems that you have a nodule and you have to have an operation, a biopsy,” said Morris Modeste.

Fortunately, the specialist determined that she did not have a nodule in her throat, but an inflammation and recommended rest for six months and the installation of air purifiers in different areas of her home.

Morris Modeste resumed her activities in her workshop a few months ago, and little by little, she has been working on some other images. At the time of this interview, she was finishing restoring an ancient image of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr from the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ozone Park in Queens.

Among the more complex images she has restored is the first Sacred Heart of Jesus she received. “The image was very large, over six feet tall, so it was a challenge,” she said.

When she was asked if she wanted to restore it, she excitedly said yes. But when she was in front of the statue, she understood the magnitude of the work that awaited her and was a little distressed that she might not be able to restore it as she wanted.

“It was in such a condition that I really thought I couldn’t do it. The angels didn’t have fingers, the image didn’t have a hand, on the back it didn’t have wood and in other parts it had plaster,” she recalled.

Morris Modeste especially remembers this 120-year-old image. “When I sanded the plaster, a hole opened up … Finding the materials was (also) difficult,” she said. “When I delivered it, I cried because I said, ‘My God, I did it!

For her, “people see it and say, ‘Oh, how beautiful! … But they often don’t think about the work it takes. It took me almost a year to work on that statue,” she said.

She also remembers a small image of the Infant Jesus of Prague that included many ornaments and small details that made the restoration work complex. “I told him, ‘Father, you’d better buy a new one.’ That required sanding where you can’t even fit your little finger, so I wrapped the sandpaper and stuck it on little, tiny things and even on sticks to be able to sand and leave it ready to paint,” said Morris Modeste of this statue, about 20 inches high, which was missing a part of its head and had some broken fingers.

For Morris Modeste, each image she works on has a special meaning. She takes care of every detail. Every time she delivers a finished image, she is overwhelmed with emotion.

Of all the images she has restored, she has only visited the Sacred Heart of Jesus at St. Pius V Church. “Many times, I ask (God) that this image can transmit that peace that only Christ gives to the people who pray in front of it,” said Morris Modeste.

Whenever she sees a parishioner at the feet of a religious image restored by her, she prays “so that this saint can intercede before the Lord for each and every one of the intentions of those who contemplate this image with devotion.”

Marietha Góngora V. writes for OSV News from Bogotá, Colombia.

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