This article has been updated.

Three years after a statue of explorer Christoper Columbus was vandalized and ordered removed from a downtown park, a new statue will go up in its place.

The new statue of a Catholic saint, which was sought by a retired construction company executive, will be erected on the pedestal where the Columbus statue stood in what used to be known as Columbus Park.

Approved by the Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday, the 6-foot bronze statue of St. Francesco di Paola, commissioned and financed by Sam Greco, will be installed on the 5-foot-tall pedestal left bare when a city crew removed the Columbus statue in July 2020.

Francesco di Paola, also known as Francis of Paola, lived in the same region of Italy as the people who emigrated to San Antonio and built their homes and livelihoods on the near West Side of downtown.

“Italians are very dedicated to the patron saint,” said Greco, the retired vice president of Greco Construction

The new statue will stand in the park across from the church named for the saint, San Francesco di Paola Catholic Church, which is San Antonio’s only Italian Catholic church.

Donated to the City of San Antonio in 1957 by the local Christopher Columbus Italian Society, the likeness of Columbus was the centerpiece of a 2-acre greenspace formerly known as Piazza di Colombo, or Columbus Park. 

While removal of the statue was originally meant to be temporary — for restoration after it was found splattered with red paint — the City Council later voted for permanent removal of the statue. It now sits in storage in the basement of the society’s building nearby. 

The council also voted to rename the park Piazza Italia Park in response to protests against tributes to Columbus, whose legacy some view as tied to colonization and violence. 

The Columbus statue and name, for some groups, was a “symbol of pain and, for another [group], a symbol of heritage,” said Roberto Treviño, District 1 councilman at the time. 

The new name was intended to respect indigenous groups while honoring the immigrant Italian families who settled in the area and founded the San Francesco di Paola Church in 1927. 

Vandalism of the Christopher Columbus statue and protests against tributes to the explorer in 2020 resulted in the monument’s permanent removal. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Greco’s father, a vegetable peddler, laid the first bricks for the church, he said. 

The subject of the new statue to be installed in Piazza Italia has special meaning for those early settlers and for Greco.

Born in 1416, Francesco was named after St. Francis of Assisi and became an Italian mendicant friar and founder of the Catholic Order of the Minims. 

Francesco is said to have performed many miracles in his lifetime, the most famous of which occurred in 1464 when, denied a ferry boat ride, he laid his cloak on the water and used it as a sailboat to cross the Strait of Messina. 

He died in 1507, having never been ordained a priest, and was canonized in 1519. He is the patron saint of boatmen, mariners and naval officers, and thus often depicted sailing across the sea on his cloak. 

Greco believes the saint is still performing miracles. In 2015, with his wife Kathy seriously ill from an infection that threatened her life, Greco prayed. 

“The doctor came in that night and told me you might as well go home and tell your kids their mom is not coming home,” Greco said. “So I prayed with her that day,” a relic of the saint in his hands.

Soon after, she improved. But, “the doctors were just perplexed,” Greco said. 

Kathy Greco, founder of the construction company the couple’s son now operates, died in March 2022. In her memory, Greco also commissioned a similar bronze statue of the saint for the town of Paola in the Calabrian region of Italy. 

Created by Italian-Canadian artist Antonio Caruso, the statue is scheduled to be installed in May with 24 Greco family members in attendance, he said. 

In San Antonio, several plaques are planned for the pedestal bearing the new statue. One will feature a narrative about San Francesco di Paola and another the history of the Italian American community in the area of the park. 

The City’s cultural historian will review and approve the wording, according to design commission documents.

Greco declined to say how much the two statues will cost. But California art dealer Bronzeman estimates that commissioning a bronze statue can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000 depending on specifications. San Francesco di Paola Church has agreed to pay for the installation, Greco said. 

City staff recommended approval of Greco’s plans. With the OK from commissioners, Greco Construction, a family-owned builder of religious institutions, medical offices and schools, can move forward with plans to install the statue and its accompanying plaques this fall. 

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.