“In meeting Pope Francis, we have a common thread… I admire his way, one’s actions are so much more important than their words. To be a leader, today is to lead by example. That’s one of the things I admire most about him.”
Dale Zarrella is an American artist, whose significant contribution to religious and symbolic art has brought him to Rome and to a personal audience with Pope Francis. He has been awarded commissions of sculptures for both the Vatican Museum and the North American College in Rome.
Dale came to Maui when he was 23 years old, where he has devoted himself to his art as well as a profound spiritual reflection on the people, culture, and symbolic worlds that surround the Hawaiian Islands.
Among his artworks, drawn from his love of the sea, are a series of magical mermaids whose figures call us to see more deeply into the liquid blue waters of Maui’s vital marine life.
These large-size statues are captured precious discarded wood that he has salvaged from the dead bark of trees around the island. The completed artworks are currently on display at the Fairmount Kea Lani, where I first met him and his assistant Mysha Obeson.
From his boyhood days in Southington, Connecticut, his parish church of Saint Dominic has inspired him that at the age of seventeen, he was commissioned to carve the crucifix that stands above the main altar.
His mother saw in him this remarkable, unschooled talent, and encouraged his artistic ambitions. When he was a six-year-old, his father’s death in 1968 gave him the incentives to find creative outlets in sports and the arts.
Dale tells me: “When God takes something away, he always gives you something back. That’s how I see my talent and gift as an artist.”
Today, the crucifix at Saint Dominic’s, with several of his more recent artworks of the Holy Family, and that of the Resurrection grace the sanctuary and remain an anchor to his own spiritual development.
When Dale informed his cousin Al Zarrella that he was relocating to Maui, Father Al had lived for several years in Belgium, where he was the Vice-Rector of the American College Seminary at Louvain.
In fact, Louvain, with its great university and city, was nearby the burial site of one of Hawaii’s most prominent figures, Father Damien, whose ministry to those with Hansen’s disease or leprosy gave cause to his sainthood.
Al had spoken often to Dale about Father Damien of Molokai and how Damien’s dedication to the people of Hawaii would remain a significant legacy in Church’s ministry to those on the periphery with grave illness.
With a seed planted in Dale’s fertile artistic imagination, the commission of a statue of Damien would come years later with the opening of the Damien Museum in Honolulu.
This was the result of a chance meeting of Dale with Father Felix, a priest of the Father Damien’s Sacred Heart order, who told the artist that the museum might need a Damien statue. The commission for a bronze of the saint came just in time for the 2009 formal canonization of Father Damien by Pope Benedict.
Maui was a welcoming place for Dale since so many people were passing through the islands, but it was also home to serious art collectors. However, his first five years meant working in restaurants, waiting on tables as well as learning the fine art of tossing pizzas, that of a “pizzaiolo.”
One of the restaurants, however, came with a patron — the chef/owner Hans Gerner was an art collector who had connections to the artistic community. He took a look at Dale’s art, and commissioned three pieces, then placed them in his restaurant.
With Hans’s assistance, these efforts resulted in enough sales to give Dale a location on the magnificent Makena beach, so inspirational to sculpture, and making this his full-time pursuit.
The Honolulu bishop Larry Silva, whose own great-grandfather died of Hansen’s disease on Molokai, brought Dale’s rendering of Father Damien to the attention of the Vatican, where almost immediately two additional bronze statues of the saint were commissioned.
A few years later, Pope Francis’s canonization in 2012 of Sister Marianne Cope, who had established the first hospital on Maui and then continued Damien’s work on Molokai, occasioned the need of her statue. So Dale Zarrella was awarded an additional commission of Sister Marianne for the Vatican and other churches, and museums. Dale is pictured below with Msgr. Terry Watanabe, the pastor of Saint Theresa’s parish, Kihei.
“I still pinch myself,” Dale tells me, “when I go to the museums like the Borghese Gallery in Rome, and see the magnificent sculptures of Bernini’s, Michelangelo’s, and especially of the Donatello’s. ”
As a preparation for these artworks, Dale’s reading deeply into the lives of Father Damien and Sister Marianne became an all-important starting point for his artistic imagination.
Dale’s task as a “religious artist” is a representation of a personal grace that is the very essence of sainthood itself. Thus, letters, correspondence, and first-hand books like the “Lepers of Molokai” by those who actually knew these historical figures became a personal testimony.
Also, traveling to Molokai provided glimpses into their personalities, religious devotion, and coming to terms with their unique saintly work in the name of Jesus, the healer of souls.
Concerning the details of his meeting in Rome with Pope Francis at the presentation of the statue of Saint Marianne Cope, Dale replied:
“In meeting Pope Francis, we have a common thread — namely both of our families are from Italy, and, I like the pope, have relatives in Argentina and with priests who are cousins of mine both in Buenos Aires and in the United States.
In my encounter with him, he was such a loving, kind, humble leader, that’s what I got from him. The very last thing, Pope Francis said to me, ‘Please, pray for me.’
I admire his way, one’s actions are so much more important than their words. To be a leader, today is to lead by example. That’s one of the things I admire most about him.”
Maui remains the “ground of being” for Dale’s artistic vision, but it’s also seen in his family, and grandchildren who have become models for several of his artworks. Most notable are his close ties to friends and Maui neighbors.
One evening, Father Michael Driscoll of Notre Dame University with his brother and sister-in-law, Ed and Iris, and I were invited with guests to a Hawaiian luau along the coastline of Kihei where Dale has a home and workplace.
The menu consisted of the old Hawaii favorite “spaghetti e polpette,” or Dale’s grandmother’s recipe for “spaghetti and meatballs.” It was an excellent dinner with choice wines and great friends.
Dale’s muse, Uncle Les Kuloloio, an inspirational singer, shaman, and native Maui activist, honored the priests and guests in song.
Dale and Les, these remarkable men, and with an evening of art, music, and a brilliant fireside along the sea, that I will not soon forget.
You can learn more about Dale Zarrella, his artwork, and how to contact him at: