Blessed John Paul exhibit at NOMA

The Archdiocese of New Orleans, in association with the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, will host “Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life & Art,” March 8-June 16 at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

The exhibit, which will include personal items of Blessed John Paul II, never-before-seen photographs of his historic 1987 visit to New Orleans and sacred artwork from three contemporary artists, has been designed to reach people of all faiths on many different levels, said Wendy Vitter, archdiocesan coordinator.

“I was here when we welcomed Blessed John Paul to the archdiocese, and it’s an honor for us to have him come back in a different way and a spiritual way,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said. “This will allow us to relive his visit here and recall the great blessing of his being the chief shepherd of the Catholic Church.”

Wendy Vitter, archdiocesan coordinator of the exhibit, said the exhibit will have something for everyone.

“If you love history, you will be looking at history through the photographs from 25 years ago,” she said.  “If you love art, there will be many pieces of sacred art. If you’ve lost your faith along the way, come and try to be inspired. If you already have faith, hopefully it will be deepened through this exhibit.”

Given the way the civic and ecumenical communities in New Orleans rallied to welcome the pope in 1987, Vitter said Archbishop Aymond wanted to make sure that the museum exhibit was designed to encourage interfaith dialogue. Faith leaders of every major religion eagerly accepted an invitation to be co-hosts, Vitter said.

“This is not just a Catholic exhibit,” Vitter said. “We have leaders of many faiths to serve as co-hosts, and we encourage their congregations to join with them out of respect for this man. He was a great man who opened his arms to all, and we’d like to do the same.”

The exhibit will focus on the art of Gib Singleton, Frederick Hart and Fred Villanueva.

Singleton, a Missouri native, is a sculptor most noted for his bronze work. He worked in the Vatican Workshop and helped restore Michelangelo’s Pieta. Singleton’s version of the  “bowed” cross, the symbol on Pope John Paul II’s crosier that was so closely identified with him, will be a featured piece of art.

Hart, a native of Atlanta who died in 1999, is best known for his bronze work and his work in clear acrylic resin, which he called “sculpting with light.” His Cross of the Millennium was presented to Pope John Paul in 1997 at the Vatican.

Will paint PJP in N.O. 

Villanueva painted “Pope Benedict XVI at Prayer with the Holy Theologians,” which was on display at the John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., in 2008 when Pope Benedict visited. 

Villanueva has been commissioned by the archdiocese to do a similar piece that would show Blessed John Paul with holy men and women who have New Orleans ties: Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, St. Katharine Drexel, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, St. Philippine Rose Duchesne, Mother Cornelia Connelly and Venerable Henriette Delille.

“It will be a beautiful tribute to the influence of these wonderful people in New Orleans, and it will remain in the archdiocese after the exhibit,” Vitter said.

The Shrine of John Paul II in Washington is loaning items from its personal collection, including vestments, miters and other items he used during his papacy.

Also, the 1938 Eucharistic Congress monstrance will be on display at the museum, both to renew ties between NOMA and the archdiocese and to celebrate the 75th anniversary of that event.

The archdiocese has never before displayed photographs of the 1987 visit, Vitter said, and photographers Mike Posey, David Spielman and Mitchel Osborne have made their works available, along with photographs from The Times-Picayune.

Video will introduce exhibit  

The exhibit also will include a 15-minute video that will air three times an hour and be used as an introductory part of the tour. It will offer reflections from Archbishop Aymond, Dr. Norman Francis of Xavier University of Louisiana, Rabbi Edward Cohn, a member of the St. Augustine Marching 100, which played for the pope, and many others.

Vitter said she is indebted to NOMA director Susan Taylor and her associate, exhibit co-curator Lisa Rotondo-McCord, and also to Scott Peck, curator of the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, and R.J. Machacek, exhibit designer, for their assistance.

Last fall, Peck offered to take the lead in securing artwork and defining the theme of the exhibit, and all of his time and expertise have been a gift to the archdiocese, Vitter said. In 2005, the Dallas museum suffered a massive fire that burned nearly everything in its extensive collection of sacred art except for a zucchetto once worn by Pope John Paul II.

“The fire in 2005 was so devastating that it melted the steel beams of the museum,” Vitter said. “There were a few ashes on the zucchetto, but it was just sitting there in its case. Scott told me, ‘I just feel like it’s the hand of God telling me we need to come and help you.’”

Jesuit zucchetto connection

Another zucchetto, received from Pope John Paul by then-Jesuit High School teacher Jody Fortunate on a trip to Rome, also will be displayed.

Vitter, an attorney, said she never expected the myriad of details involved  in coordinating a major exhibit, but she has learned on the job and sees it as a blessing in her life.

“This undertaking has been a gift to me that I can’t even express in words,” she said. “I was in the crowd at the UNO Mass in 1987, but I was young and I don’t think I fully realized the impact he had. What particularly struck me in meeting the leaders of all the different faiths was the far-reaching impact of this pope, and that touched me all over again. Anyone who comes to the exhibit will be touched again. I’ve been renewed.”

The exhibit will be open six days a week (closed Mondays): Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 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, teachers and chaperons on a school tour. Groups are allowed in on their own from 9 to 11 a.m., every day except Monday. The cost includes the video screening and an audio tour.

For information, call toll free 1 (866) 608-4799, visit or email Vitter at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.