The second-floor gallery space of the New Orleans Museum of Art is filled with dozens of previously unpublished photographs, pieces of sacred sculpture and artwork, and wall-sized murals, many of which depict Blessed John Paul II and his historic 1987 visit to New Orleans.
Near the end of the exhibit, “Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life and Art,” is the eucharistic monstrance designed for the 1938 International Eucharistic Congress, bejeweled with gemstones donated by Catholics in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
But the personal favorites of Wendy Vitter, archdiocesan coordinator of the exhibit, are the works of non-artists – dozens of rainbow-colored stickie notes expressing from the heart what Pope John Paul II meant to them.
“I knew how people felt about the man – the priest and the pope – but I had no idea people would be so touched by the exhibit,” Vitter said, walking down a hallway with glass windows on each side, covered with notes of affection written by patrons. “By walking in and seeing the items and the artwork, some peope are just changed.”
Notes from the heart
Many of the scribbled notes are poignant, almost as though they belong inside a grotto lit by votive candles:
“I’m coming back to my Catholic faith.”
“To do something for God can require suffering.”
“Caring for others is absent geography.”
“John Paul II helped me with my trouble.”
“I was inspired to be a good and holy priest following the example of John Paul the Great.”
“Came sick and left healed. Thank you for interceding, John Paul II.”
“This is just amazing,” said Vitter. “I come in here at night and read them. I love to see the students come in. I can’t believe how this has taken off.”
Vitter occasionally will move some of the notes higher up on the window pane to make room for more.
“This wasn’t my idea – it was the curator’s idea (Scott Peck of the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas),” Vitter said. “I thought it would be messy. He just said, ‘Let it go!’”
The exhibit, which will run through Father’s Day (June 16), has attracted strong crowds, including heavy interest from Catholic schools in the archdiocese and church groups and senior clubs across the Gulf South, said Lisa Rotondo-McCord, deputy director for curatorial affairs for NOMA. On one day recently, 1,500 people came through the exhibit, Vitter said.
Drawing large crowds
“The response has been great,” Rotondo-McCord said. “If you’re here in the morning, it’s jammed, because most of the groups come in the morning. People have had a great experience, especially the people who were here in 1987. It brings back a flood of memories. The experience has been very moving.”
Two weeks ago, a group of local priests toured the exhibit, including Msgr. Frank Giroir, pastor of St. Anselm Parish in Madisonville, who remembered Pope John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis Cathedral for a prayer service as his personal highlight.
“Everybody was cheering when he first came into the cathedral, and when he knelt down at the altar, there was complete silence,” Msgr. Giroir said. “All you heard were the shutters of the cameras going off. It was such a spiritual experience.”
For the papal visit, Father Eugene Jacques, pastor of St. Catherine Church in Metairie, was in charge of senior priests, who got VIP treatment by being dropped off within one block of the cathedral entrance.
“New Orleans just needed to know that he knew we existed,” Father Jacques said. “Everybody likes to be heard. It was good for us.”
“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” Msgr. Giroir said. “The joke among the priests was that Archbishop (Philip) Hannan could go straight to heaven now because he can’t accomplish anything more than that. What a great blessing to the city of New Orleans.”
Father Rodney Bourg, pastor of Most Holy Trinity Parish in Covington, was ordained in 1978, the same year that Pope John Paul II assumed the papacy. Father Bourg traveled to Rome in 1989 when Archbishop Francis Schulte received his pallium, and he had a chance to greet the pope personally.
Totally focused on you
“It was such an unbelievable gift that he had that when he shook your hand, he was looking at you and at nobody else,” Father Bourg said. “After he shook my hand, I was with a small group of pilgrims, and Archbishop Schulte asked me to introduce the rest of the people to the Holy Father. It took me a second to catch my breath, and all I could say was ‘Uhhh.’ The pope looked at me and smiled. He understood completely.”
Msgr. Giroir said the pope’s example of priesthood still inspires him today.
“Just to be a devoted priest and a shepherd to the people,” Msgr. Giroir said. “That was his lifestyle – reaching out to the needs of others. That’s why we became priests.”
The exhibit is open six days a week (closed Mondays). Cost is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, active military personnel and members of groups of 10 or more; $6 for children ages 7-17; and $5 for students. Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.