Let’s Show It Off!

It has been more than 30 years since the 41st International Eucharistic Congress was held in Philadelphia. That long a time has gone by as well without a concentrated attempt to organize a review of liturgical arts in the area. I remember wandering through the exhibition in August 1976 thinking, “Why doesn’t my church commission stuff like this?” and “Wow, what a great tapestry!”

The old civic center housed works by many artists that focused upon religious themes and sacred vessels. Of course the theme for the Eucharistic Congress was Jesus the Bread of Life. How better to express this Christocentric appreciation than through art?

The experience of wandering about the exhibition would change my perceptions of Church art, architecture and worship for a lifetime.

There were works by Bolton Morris, Robert McGovern, Helen Siegl, Bill Daley, Tony Visco, Jerry Horner… all showing, in one exhibition, how local artists could express their appreciation of the Almighty.

Well, such a collection of artists and works has been terribly absent from the local Philadelphia art scene for three decades. A few of the mentioned artists have since gone to eternal reward, their works still reflecting their expertise and intense appreciation of the Catholic faith.

Most are still with us, and they are painting, sculpting, etching, potting and carving away happily in their studios. Most of their works are little known outside of the cognoscenti that seek their works and counsel.

Recently, I spoke with Bob McGovern, the printmaker, about the need to have some sort of exhibition that would focus on all of the liturgical arts present in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

He thought the idea was grand. We ventured onto a conversation regarding Dorothy Day, mused on her deep sense of gravitas humilitas and moved on to other topics. I suppose the work of gathering an exhibition for public display is just too monumental.

Besides being a “grand” idea what could such an exposition accomplish?

For the past two decades Catholic Church artifacts have been showing up at salvage shops, antiques galleries and, yes, even the dreaded eBay — surplus theocentric accessories for a world that does not appreciate the intrinsic quality of terms like, “handmade”, “original” or “heritage”. I recently saved a work by Helen Siegl from eBay exploitation. It was a print, not of a religious nature. $18.50 brought “Summers End” home to someone who appreciates Helen’s works. How are these well-known printmakers and illustrators ending up in the cyber shopping mall?

This coming year is the bicentennial anniversary of the founding of the (then) Diocese of Philadelphia. The event appears to have an understated planning agenda. There will be the usual Masses to commemorate dates, times and places. The coffee table book will be published, sold through parish sources and I guess then we will move on to the next special event. Ho hum! Where is the spark, where is the excitement, and where is the opportunity to evangelize on many levels — temporal and spiritual?

Two hundred years is a long time to be around, contributing to the daily lives of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Didn’t we collect any art and architecture to show off and exhibit in those two centuries? Has Catholic history throughout the last 200 years only contributed materials for a photo book, destined to reside on a corner ottoman and unceremoniously end up in a yard sale or in the cyber mall? I really don’t believe that is true. The accomplishments of the Catholic lifestyle and contributions towards our society deserve more attention than a pictorial paperweight.

Aren’t there many churches, schools, paintings, chalices, tapestries, sculptures and the like that deserve historical and artistic focus in their contributions to the liturgical arts and local history? Let’s show them off.

Besides the rape and plunder mentality that recently has overtaken the Philadelphia secular art community, the same malformed idea strikes the ecclesial mindset. Rather than preserve and cherish the arts in our Catholic heritage, they are sent off to Freeman’s as surplus, destined to financially feed projects outside of the city proper or to return to the general operating budget. Quality Catholic art and furnishings are even popping up for sale on places like www.kingrichards.com which resells liturgical objects that have religious, historical and craftsmanship significance.

Unfortunately Catholic parishes have forsaken patronage of artistic projects. There are many reasons, the most common being about money. Most pastors are cheap and just want utilitarian “fill-ins” with little or no concern for artistic design or legacy. However, the most understated reason is the cultural misconception against objects of longevity and quality. We don’t like things that last long. We don’t like paying for quality materials. Most people would, rather than repair a broken object, just throw it out and get a new one from the endless Walmart supply chain, or from the Roomey Toomey Church Goods store.

Most parishes are happy with the “Salt and Pepper” statues of Jesus and Mary and the in- stock catalogue accessories. They are polychromed compositions of some diethyl-bromo-hydroxide compound, they look good and the price is right. Michelangelo would have starved to death waiting for a local commission.

I can hear the grumbling out there…Hugh is just a wanna be, a has been, a never was who wants to muse on the sad state of ecclesiastical art patronage and preservation.

Well…true. There is some truth to my curmudgeon-like, Andy Rooney approach. However it does not change the fact that an appreciation of liturgical art and artists helps evangelize and stabilize our understanding and appreciation of the Catholic faith.

What is needed is a liturgical exhibition space. You know, somewhere we could display religious works of art. A place to tell the story of not only American Catholicism, but the rich traditions of all of these artists who have crafted beauty and awe into the theological experience. Maybe a former Catholic School and parish could be nominated as the place for this exhibition. We could convert the space into a working museum and living arts center.

Rather than sell off a parish property to the ever-present scavengers of real estate investors, a parish could be “fitted” to serve as an exhibition center. This exhibition center could be both a museum and living “arts” center that would nourish and cultivate new and seasoned artists. A ”Living Catholic History Museum” would provide the connection that would bridge the past, present and future of American Catholics.

We already have an American Catholic Historical Society. Its holdings are boxed up and stored in the archives at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. They are used for research, as source materials for publications and for preserving the ongoing events that shape our religion. Rather than keep storing, boxing and recording these things, it is time to designate a place that can display, explain and appreciate the vast holdings of artistic treasures. Such a place would not only preserve, but also encourage new generations of liturgical artisans to use their talents to glorify God.

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