Jesuits, museum clash over art

The new Saint Louis University Museum of Art is scheduled to open sometime in May, but some controversy has arisen surrounding a collection of Jesuit art and artifacts that could become part of the collection. In addition, discord has escalated between the Jesuits of the Missouri Province and the board of the Museum of Western Jesuit Missions.

The Jesuits have sued the board of the Florissant museum for ownership of the $1.1 million collection, which they wish to move to the University’s new museum at the request of University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J., according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The collection is currently located in the historic Rock Building, which is part of the former St. Stanislaus Seminary, which the Jesuits sold in 1971 to Gateway College of Evangelism, 700 Howdershell Road.

In the lawsuit, the Jesuits claim that the board, St. Stanislaus Historical Museum Society, Inc., does not have legal ownership of the art or the building in which it is housed, though many of the artifacts are from Florissant.

Phil Steele, S.J., executive assistant to the Jesuit Provincial, said the Jesuits have been maintaining the building as a museum for the past 30 years but had been searching for a substitute for the ailing building, which is estimated to cost $2 million to renovate and bring up to current standards.

“No attractive alternatives ever came up until the offer came from the University,” Steele said. “It seemed to us like it was an attractive offer, with heightened security and much more accessibility. Many, many more people will be able to see it.”

While the SLU Museum of Art will be open Sunday through Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Museum of Western Jesuit Missions is open every Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. However, the Western Jesuit Museum offers special tours on other days of the week, though Steele said the building was sometimes closed even on Sundays, when he went to visit.

Steele explained that Claude Heithaus, S.J., was instrumental in gathering the artifacts more than 30 years ago, which were then put together at the Florissant location. His brother also made a $250,000 donation at the time, to help preserve the objects.

Steele said that the Historical Museum Society was formed to support the art and artifacts, and to promote the museum. “They did a lot of work maintaining everything,” Steele said. However, they think the Jesuits completely abandoned it, Steele said.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, museum board president Lyn Cocks thinks that the Jesuits have not been involved in the museum for 30 years and that the only reason the Jesuits want the collection to be moved is because Biondi wants it. Cocks was not available for comment.

“We had an ambivalent attitude about running a museum,” Steele said.

“However, we insured the objects and paid for part of the expenses, such as utilities. Nothing was ever written saying, `We bequeath these objects to the museum,'” he said.

The suit asks for a temporary order, which would restrain the museum board from withholding the art collection. The Jesuits will seek a permanent order at a later date, the Post-Dispatch article said.

Steele also said a hearing was held yesterday to request that the amount of time given to the museum board to produce requested documents be reduced.

The Jesuits were hoping to settle the situation but decided that legal action was required. Although a definite amount of time is not known, Steele said the whole ordeal could last at least a year-longer than he or the University wants.