Let the Oppressed Go Free Sculpture April 26, 2024

A few weeks ago, on Good Friday Let the Oppressed Go Free, a sculpture by world renowned Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz was installed on the plaza in front of The Basilica of Saint Mary. This was the second large scale sculpture by Schmaltz The Basilica hosted after Angels Unawares graced the plaza in 2021.

Like Angels Unawares, which draws attention to the plight if immigrants, Cardinal Czerny who is The Vatican’s Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development commissioned Let the Oppressed Go Free. He asked that the new sculpturedraw attention to the evil of human trafficking.

It took Schmalz about one year to create the original sculpture out of clay. From that, he made a rubber mold which was sent to a foundry to be cast in bronze. The nearly life-sized bronze sculpture is 22.5’ long, 4’ wide, and 8’ tall and weighs 5 tons. The first cast of Let the Oppressed Go Free was installed on June 29, 2023, in the Italian city of Schio, near Venice where St. Josephine Bakhita lived and is now buried. The sculpture currently hosted by The Basilica of Saint Mary is the second and last cast. After traveling the country for about a year it will be permanently installed on the campus of the Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Let the Oppressed Go Free is inspired by the 58th Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah in which God explains the true meaning of fasting, saying: “Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke. Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

St. Josephine Bakhita who was born in Sudan at the end of the 19th C. is featured prominently in the sculpture. At a young age she was abducted from her village and was sold into slavery. After having been maltreated by different slave owners she ended up in the household of an Italian diplomat who took her to Italy. Since Italy did not recognize slavery St. Josephine was a free woman. She converted to Christianity and became a Canossian sister. She was the cook and doorkeeper at the Canossian Convent in Schio for 42 years. She is said to have been gentle and charismatic, and the villagers saw her as their protector, especially during World War II. 

After St. Josephine Bakhita was canonized on October 1, 2000, she became the patroness of people who are experiencing modern day enslavement. That is why she is depicted in Let the Oppressed Go Free as opening a trapdoor, freeing figures that represent victims of all kinds of human-trafficking.

While describing his inspiration for the sculpture Schmalz referenced the famous folktale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He explained that “when the piper wasn’t paid for removing the rats, he played another tune, and the ground opened up, and the children of the town got sucked into the underground.” Schmalz holds that this poignantly describes “our modern-day plague, which is human trafficking, which is sucking children underground… with victims of human trafficking finally released from that underground by Saint Josephine Bakhita—the patron saint of human trafficking.”

Let the Oppressed Go Free depicts almost a hundred figures representing the different faces of human trafficking including sex exploitation, organ trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, child brides, child soldiers and more. Men, women, and children, including an infant are shown to demonstrate the wide range of victims. Some of the figures in the sculpture would never be recognized as victims of human trafficking. “Horrible modern-day slavery is everywhere, and it’s kept hidden,” said Timothy referring to “women that look like the girl next door, workers who are hardly ever seen outside of the factories they work in, people that have been organ trafficked.” One of the striking aspects of the sculpture is that some of the young women are branded with barcodes. This emphasizes the unmistakable connection between human trafficking and money.

The power of this piece was confirmed for Schmalz when he read the message released by Pope Francis on February 8, 2023, to mark the World Day of Prayer and Reflection against Human Trafficking. Pope Franics said: “Human trafficking disfigures dignity. Exploitation and subjugation limit freedom and turn people into objects to use and discard.” What specifically struck Schmalz relative to the sculpture was when Pope Francis remarked that human trafficking “will always exist if kept underground.” Schmalz recalls looking at his sculpture and thinking, “these are the words of Pope Francis expressed in bronze with the hero being St. Josephine Bakhita.”

“Bronze is a permanent material, and it takes up space—and I love the fact that it takes up that physical space and it makes visible what is, 99% of the time, invisible within our society,” Schmalz said. “And I think that’s one of the clever things about how human trafficking works. It’s not seen, and that’s how it thrives. This sculpture brings sight to it; it brings that physicality to it,” Schmalz continued.

The figures and especially the faces are very expressive. As they are liberated by St. Josephine Bakhita, you can see them crawling, their faces grimacing in pain and frustration, struggling to get freed from slavery. The further they get away from their entrapment, the happier and joy filled they are, having regained freedom.

Let the Oppressed Go Free will be on display at The Basilica of Saint Mary through the end of June. We hope that you will visit the sculpture often and that you will bring family and friends to see it.

Johan van Parys, PhD
Managing Director of Ministries/ Director of Liturgy & Sacred Arts

Photos by Ken Fournelle