How a Yorba Linda artist’s sculpture of Pope John Paul II might end up at the Vatican

Nohad Sabbagh’s talent as a sculptor revealed itself early in New York City, where she spent most of her childhood after coming to the United States from Egypt with her family. Now her work is getting a shot at recognition at a very high level – the Vatican.

On a recent weekday at the Art-A-Fair Festival, the Yorba Linda resident showed a guest some of her bronze figurines: a ballerina, a horse, a shapely bathing beauty in a 1950s swimsuit. There’s even a dolphin she sculpted from chocolate, sitting atop a chocolate dish filled with chocolate coins for visitors.

Sabbagh often does commissioned work and has even sculpted a bust of President Ronald Reagan, now at the Reagan Library.

The most prominent spot, at the front of the booth, is taken up by the clay mold of a sculpture she’s making of Pope John Paul II, wearing his zucchetto (skullcap), with a watchful gaze on his face. It’s this work that she plans to send to Pope Francis and Vatican City, with the help of a recent visitor to Southern California, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri.

Sabbagh has long been an ardent fan of John Paul II.

“He did did a lot of good. He was one of these popes that were open. … He opened up to other religions and other countries … and tried to bring people together,” she said.

When the pope was given sainthood last year, she was inspired to start the work. Her priest, Father Francois Beyrouti of Holy Cross Melkite Catholic Church in Placentia, saw the sculpture and told her she should bring it to a banquet in Los Angeles that Cardinal Sandri would be attending.

“I showed it to my priest, and he loved it and he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but the cardinal is coming.’”

Sandri was in Los Angeles for the naming of St. Anne Melkite Catholic Church in North Hollywood as a co-cathedral, at Pope Francis’ direction. At a banquet last weekend marking the honor, Beyrouti introduced Sabbagh to the cardinal and Bishop Nicholas Samra of Boston, who said he would help her send the sculpture to the Vatican when it’s finished, hopefully by mid-September.

“When I was working on the pope’s head, I was beginning to wonder, ‘I’d love to get it in the Vatican,’” Sabbagh said. “But I didn’t know how to go about doing it. … The Vatican’s huge! It’s a whole city. So with my luck, it’s like God brought them to me,” she said, laughing.

“It’s like God has been guiding my footsteps.”

“It just is like perfect timing that he was coming and she was working on the sculpture,” Father Beyrouti said. “He was very moved by it.”

The statue is especially significant now that Pope John Paul II is a saint, he added.

Sabbagh started early as an artist, taking Saturday art classes when she was still in grade school at Pratt Institute in New York, where she would later earn her degree in sculpture and industrial design.

In high school, she got a push from a sculpture teacher who linked her to a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where she helped recreate dinosaur bones.

Sabbagh has created sculptures for Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm and Mattel, where she made prototypes for the Masters of the Universe figurines. In her Art-A-Fair booth in Laguna Beach hang photos of a younger Sabbagh posing by sculptures of dinosaurs, one of the Seven Dwarfs and clam shells on the original submarine ride at Disneyland.

“I dreamed of doing this,” Sabbagh said of her career. “When I was a little kid, that’s all I wanted to do. … I enjoyed playing my whole life. I was blessed with God’s talent. I just enjoy making things.”

The John Paul II sculpture now is being cast in bronze at a Buena Park foundry.

Whether it’s destined for public display at the Vatican, however, isn’t certain. According to the Rev. Monsignor Arthur A. Holquin, pastor-emeritus of Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, it’s not unusual for the Vatican to receive unsolicited artwork.

“As to whether it will be displayed publicly is a totally separate issue. … Many of these (artworks) end up in the Vatican museum storage vaults to be displayed on a rotation basis,” Holquin said, adding that he hasn’t seen the work Sabbagh created.

In the meantime, the clay mold for the statue catches people’s attention at the Art-A-Fair show.

“People love it,” Sabbagh said. “They love the way I capture him. They just tell me I nailed it.”

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