Jesuit legal battle escalates

The mayor of Florissant has now decided to get involved in the ongoing battle between the Jesuits of the Missouri Province and the board of the Museum of the Western Jesuit Missions.

The conflict is over a $1.1 million collection of Jesuit art and artifacts, which has been stored in the historic Rock Building in Florissant for more than 30 years. The Jesuits want to move the collection to the new Saint Louis University Museum of Art, at the request of University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mayor Robert Lowery plans to ask Biondi to reconsider moving the artifacts to SLU.

The museum board thinks that the collection should stay at the current location, on Howdershell Road in Florissant. “The artifacts mean something in Florissant,” said board member Edwin Benton. “There are emotional ties to the community.”

Benton, who received his doctorate from SLU in 1965, said that the Jesuits first settled the site in 1823. Many of them are also buried there in the cemetery, including Peter DeSmet, S.J.

Biondi also wants to move the graves of the Jesuits to Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis. “It seems sacreligious to do so,” Benton said. “That Biondi just wants to take everything in Florissant.”

However, the Jesuits claim that the artifacts belong to them and that they were instrumental in the upkeep of the collection for the past 30 years.

“Nothing was ever written giving the objects to the museum,” said Phil Steele, S.J., executive assistant to the Jesuit Provincial.

“It has been 30 years of neglect,” Benton said. “They paid for insurance and grass cutting. What else can they dig up?”

Benton also pointed out that there is no way that all of the artifacts would fit into the new SLU museum. The Rock Building houses approximately 2,500 artifacts on four levels, including gold and silver church vessels from the past four centuries, ancient Christian books, DeSmet’s jacket, pottery, oil paintings and Navajo sand paintings.

The Jesuits also say that the new location would provide a better environment for the artifacts, since renovation of the Rock Building would cost over $2 million.

Benton said the museum board never asked for an estimate, but one day they gave a tour to a group of engineers who looked around and told them they needed air conditioning. The engineers were sent by the Jesuits, Benton said, without the knowledge of the board.

Steele also expressed concern that the artifacts do not get enough exposure at the Florissant location, whereas the new museum would provide ample opportunities for people to see the collection.

Benton, however, said that in 2001 there were 1,600 visitors to the museum, which is open from March to December. He also said Biondi has only been to the museum twice.

The two sides are currently in a legal battle that could last more than a year. The Jesuits filed a lawsuit in April to put a temporary restraining order on the museum, so that the artifacts can be moved. The SLU Museum of Art is scheduled to open sometime in May.