Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - The eyes of the world are focused on the Vatican, where the next pope will soon be elected. But for the next three months, a museum exhibit here in New Orleans will remember when a pope visited the city, 25 years ago.
“Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life & Art” opens Friday and runs through June 13 at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Click here for a slide show of some of the artifacts and art on display.
A co-production of NOMA and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, it was conceived by Archbishop Gregory Aymond and other local church leaders as a way to remember Pope John Paul II’s 1987 visit to the city and inspire a new generation to learn from the message he brought.
“Archbishop Aymond had this wonderful idea to bring this exhibit to New Orleans so that people can stop and remember this great man,” said Wendy Vitter, who has spent the past nine months coordinating the exhibit. “And what a great time it is right now to remember him.”
“It was one of the biggest things to ever happen in the city,” Vitter said of the 1987 papal visit. That’s one reason the exhibit already has 5,000 requests for tickets before it even opens.
Many of the 300 or so objects that make up the exhibit cover the visit through the eyes of local photographers Mitchel Osborne, Mike Posey and David Spielman, as well as Times-Picayune photographs and WWL-TV archival video.
“We have five phases in the exhibit: his arrival, his visit to the Superdome, the papal Mass, his visit to Xavier University and then finally his departure and his legacy,” explained Scott Peck, co-director of the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, who is serving as a guest curator of the exhibit. His museum has donated many of the artistic pieces on display.
Vitter, who remembers being at the outdoor Mass at the lakefront, says the exhibit’s framed photos tell the story of John Paul II’s connection with the crowds.
“If you look at the pictures, I think that is, to me, the most telling part: the look on people's faces when they saw him and how they reacted. Without saying a word, that speaks volumes,” she said.
Also making bold statements in the exhibit are pieces by nationally-known artists whose work was inspired by the pope. They include dramatic religious sculptures by Frederick Hart and Gib Singleton and paintings by Fred Villanueva.
The closing image in the exhibit is Villanueva’s huge painting depicting Pope John Paul II blessing the city of New Orleans alongside six saints or soon-to-be saints who have connections to the city: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos and the venerable Henriette DeLille and Cornelia Peacock Connelly.
The artistic works, along with a video narrated by Harry Connick Jr., are among the first things visitors will see when they enter. Another spectacular highlight, though it predates the papal visit, is a monstrance from the 1938 Eucharistic Congress, held in New Orleans. At 42 inches tall, it was made from 14-carat gold and precious metals donated by the people of the Archdiocese 75 years ago.
In addition to that local church history, it is the pieces of papal history that will likely make the greatest impression. Many are on loan from the archdiocesan archives, while others have been donated by other dioceses for display here.
“Everything from chalices used to jewelry associated with his visit, to paintings, sculpture, it’s quite a variety of things,” explained Peck. “If you kind of want to connect with something, one of the cool things is the headboard of the bed where John Paul II slept.”
That headboard, which belonged to the bed in which Archbishop Philip Hannan was born and died, is on display at the museum, along with a chair used by the pope during a visit to the Superdome. Even the vestments he wore while celebrating Mass in New Orleans, which will be displayed during the exhibit, have a story.
“That famous green chasuble, or liturgical dress that's in all the photographs of Pope John Paul II disappeared. Once he left, no one knew where the chasuble went. It was discovered because of this exhibition,” said Peck. The garment turned up in San Antonio, the city which hosted the next leg of the Pope's 1987 trip.
“What happened is the Pope liked it so much, he put it in his suitcase and wore it in San Antonio and it was on display there immediately after he left and had been on display ever since,” Peck explained. San Antonio officials have loaned the vestments to the exhibition, he said.
Other vestments on display include elements of the familiar papal headgear, including one of John Paul II’s zucchettos, or small skullcaps, and a mitre, or tall pointed cap worn by the Pope.
Along with other pieces of memorabilia, emblazoned with the logo of the papal visit, including an umbrella, hats and tickets to various New Orleans events, even the way the pope ate while he was here gets special attention.
At the time, volunteer and longtime civic activist Anne Milling, recruited by Archbishop Philip Hannan to help with hospitality, persuaded the Lenox company to donate china so that a proper table could be set.
“Archbishop Hannan was a very simple, humble man who had nothing at his residence,” she explained. “And when I took a look at the residence, I went, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ He didn’t have enough china, he didn’t have linens, his bedroom, where the Holy Father was going to stay, needed a paint job.”
She had the moxie to call the president of Lenox China to ask for place settings worthy of a papal luncheon. The company came through, and now that papal china has a special place in the exhibit.
Milling could fill a book with the memories she has of that weekend, and the months of planning that went into it. She even related a touching story, rarely told, that she said displayed the true humility of the man whose visit she and others worked months to coordinate.
“Early Saturday morning, Archbishop Hannan went into the chapel and was saying Mass and the Holy Father came in and served Archbishop Hannan at that Mass,” she remembered. “It was the most telling incident to me of the whole visit. It showed that the Holy Father had come to serve and not to be served.”
While Milling, through her volunteer role, had access to the Holy Father that few others were afforded, she said the visit, even with huge crowds, brought people across the city together on a level like few other events could.
“We talk about Super Bowl events, we talk about a Final Four, this was totally different,” Milling said. “It impacted people young and old, every race and religion, every socioeconomic class. It was remarkable.”
Like the Pope’s visit, Wendy Vitter said she hopes that this new exhibit can unify.
“Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life & Art” runs March 8 through June 16 at the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and active military, $6 for children ages 7-17 and free for NOMA members. Discounted group tickets are also available. Tickets can be purchased at the door or by calling 504-658-4100. Museum and exhibit hours are Tuesday – Thursday: 11 a.m. -6 p.m.; Friday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday: 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.jpiiinnola.com.