NEW ORLEANS (AP) — More than 25 years ago, Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to New Orleans. Now, a new generation has the chance to experience some of those memories through an exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
"Portrait of Faith: John Paul II in Life and Art" opened Friday and features photographs of the late pontiff's 1987 visit to New Orleans, as well as fine art, artifacts and sacred objects related to him. The exhibit will run through June 16.
"God's hands have been on this project from day one," guest curator Scott Peck said. "The timing has just been perfect with the entire world thinking about the pope and the future of the church's leaders."
Cardinals worldwide have gathered in Rome for a conclave to select a new pontiff to replace Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who resigned last month —the first pope to do so in 600 years.
In New Orleans, it was Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, who left a lasting mark on the community.
In September 1987, the pope was greeted at the airport by a brass band and local politicians, before being whisked off in the popemobile to the French Quarter. Hundreds of thousands of people in heavily Catholic south Louisiana attended outdoor services and Mass at the Superdome where John Paul II spoke.
Local sports fans remember him for a different reason. After the pope's Mass at the Superdome, the New Orleans Saints went on to their first winning season and NFL playoff appearance. Local lore holds that the pope exorcised a gris-gris, or curse, on the team.
The Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, where Peck is a co-director, donated parts of its collection to form the exhibit. The museum partnered with the Archdiocese of New Orleans and NOMA at the behest of Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
"He was the visionary behind the idea to mark the pope's visit (to New Orleans) in a special way," Peck said. "We started working on this in August. We usually have a year or two to get it done. We did this in just under nine months. This exhibit is really unlike anything the city's seen. It's one of the bright spots in the city's history."
Peck said the exhibit has three layers, the first of which deals with that visit.
"It's a chronology, showcasing his arrival, his visit to the Superdome, the papal Mass, his visit to Xavier University and his departure," he said. One of the first things John Paul II did during his visit to St. Louis Cathedral was to dip his hand in the holy water font and bless himself. St. Louis Cathedral has loaned that font to the museum for the exhibit.
As the second layer, the exhibit presents works by sculptors Gib Singleton and Frederick Hart, and artist Fred Villanueva.
Singleton is best known for his version of the pope's crosier that Peck said has been so closely identified with John Paul II. A select grouping of his John Paul II-related bronze sculptures also has been chosen for display, he said.
Hart's "The Cross of the Millennium," presented to John Paul II in 1997 in a private ceremony at the Vatican, will be showcased as well as some of his other acrylic resin and bronze works.
And the exhibition will include Villanueva's original commissioned piece by the Archdiocese of New Orleans depicting John Paul II and some of the saints of New Orleans: Blessed Francis Seelos, Blessed Henriette Delille, the Venerable (Sister) Cornelia Peacock-Connelly, Saint Frances Cabrini, Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne, and Saint Katharine Drexel.
"On top of that there will be other relics and religious items associated with the Holy Father, including a copy of his birth certificate, his challis, liturgical clothing he wore and even the bed post of the bed he slept in here," Peck said, describing the exhibit's third layer.
Crooner Harry Connick Jr., a New Orleans native, is the host of an orientation movie for the exhibit. There's also an audio tour hosted by Connick and the archbishop that features testimonials from people who experienced John Paul II's visit and comments from the artists.
Peck said 4,500 tickets were sold before the exhibit opened Friday. Asked if a sellout was possible, Peck said, "We're hoping that's the case. You know we can only have so many people inside the museum at any one time."
Tickets are $15 for regular adult admission, $13 for seniors and active military, and $6 for children.
New Orleans Museum of Art: www.noma.org
Museum of Biblical Arts: www.biblicalarts.org
Exhibit details: www.JPIIinNOLA.com