By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
The Dallas home shared and loved by Shirley Vilfordi and her late husband, Gene, abounds with angels.
Shirley had pondered the ideal way to honor the memory of Gene—a prominent philanthropist who was widely admired for his humility and tireless service in the Diocese of Dallas—since he died of heart failure on March 21, 2016.
A sequence of events began three months after Gene’s death and unfolded until last September, when Shirley met with Hugo Prisciliano, a wood-carving artist, at her home.
The meeting produced the perfect coalescence that resulted in the eight-foot-tall, peace-exuding “Oak Angel”— a landmark of love and the life cycle — that graces her front yard.
The angel sculpture compels passersby to stop and contemplate the radiant gift to the neighborhood and community, Shirley said.
But the memorial also reflects faithful Catholic service, the bountiful love embodied in the sacrament of marriage, and the love of two brothers for each other.
“Usually, when you start to do something, you don’t know the ramifications of all that the Lord has in mind,” said Shirley, who met Gene at St. Rita Catholic Church and married him in 1984. “But I do know that the Lord inspired the idea of the Oak Angel.
“I hope that I always am in a position to hear the Lord, that my spirit is quiet enough.”
During Gene’s funeral, his beloved brother George was speaking to the congregation of the brothers’ extraordinary bond when he collapsed. After hospitalization and treatments, George died on June 27, 2016—the same day that lightning struck the oak tree that Gene had planted in his yard more than 50 years ago.
George’s death, which followed Gene’s by about three months, coincided with the beginning of what appeared to be the end of the oak tree.
But Shirley said that the cumbersome descriptions of what it would take to remove the tree deepened her desire to preserve it.
Her autumn meeting with Prisciliano, who is from Waxahachie, answered her prayers.
As Shirley spoke with him about carving a sculpture from the tree trunk, she said that his demeanor filled her with peace.
“He was just so pure and such a humble young man,” said Shirley, who is a lector at St. Rita. “It just seemed natural. This is a memory of two people and a gift to all. I felt that it meant as much to Hugo as it did to me.”
Prisciliano had carved birds, fish, furniture and numerous sculptures to match people’s dreams of a lasting memorial. But when she viewed the angels that adorned her home, her gaze lingered on a tabletop angel with a particularly tranquil face.
The angel provided Prisciliano with the model for the Oak Angel.
“It was the right countenance,” Shirley said. “Hugo started work on the sculpture in September and finished it in just over a week. I always pray the ‘Guardian Angel’ prayer when I leave the house.
“Gene was a very faith-filled man. He was the one people knew they could go to for a good, honest prayer from the heart.”
The Oak Angel, with her hands folded in prayer, indeed means as much to Prisciliano as it does to Shirley and her loved ones.
Prisciliano, who has been doing wood carvings for 17 years, said that he felt engulfed in a comforting spirit while carving the Oak Angel.
“It made me really happy,” he said. “I felt peace when I made it.”
Msgr. Milam Joseph, who officiated at the Oak Angel’s blessing and dedication on Oct. 21, called Gene “an angel in the community.”
“The neighborhood rallied around this way of having Gene and George remembered, with an angel watching over the neighborhood,” Msgr. Joseph said. “It’s a symbol of God’s presence.”