Pope portraits bedevil cash-strapped nuns

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A prolific artist, Sister Mary Grace Thul painted two portraits of Pope Francis. (Photo: Kyle Grantham/The News Journal)

A prolific artist, Sister Mary Grace Thul painted two portraits of Pope Francis. (Photo: Kyle Grantham/The News Journal)

WILMINGTON — The New Castle nuns who tried to draw attention to their tiny order by raffling off original portraits of Pope Francis last month fell short of their goal.

“If it was a money-making enterprise, it was an absolute failure,” Sister Emmanuella Handlos, one of three nuns at Caterina Benincasa Monastery, said this week. “It was really a very great disappointment.”

The monastery’s resident artist, Sister Mary Grace Thul, painted two portraits of the Holy Father to raffle off at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The nuns paid $1,500 to rent a booth in the exhibition hall, hoping to raise the profile of the Dominican Order and attract younger novices. Collectively, the Benincasa trio has belonged to the order for more than 150 years.


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In all, the auction for both of Thul’s pastel art works — the larger one featured a half-dozen depictions of Pope Francis; the smaller one depicted him surrounded by swirls of light — raised less than $500.

People cheer as they wait for Pope Francis in Philadelphia on September 26, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/POOL *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-IMMIGRATION, originally transmitted on Sept. 26, 2015.

People cheer as they wait for Pope Francis in Philadelphia on September 26, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/POOL
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-IMMIGRATION, originally transmitted on Sept. 26, 2015.

The nuns still have plenty of matted prints available for $15 to $40 each at their gift shop.

The sisters aren’t the only ones with leftover pontiff merchandise. Since his 2013 election, the pope has entered the consumer imagination through thong underwear, dog hoodies and cellphone cases.

Even though the pope’s whirlwind U.S. tour is over, Zazzle.com still offers more than 10,500 keepsakes. Etsy.com has more than 1,000. Cafepress.com advertises more than 500. And few are actually on sale.

Michael Tandarich of Kennett Square, Pa., said he’s still selling a few designs of his $19.95 T-shirts on his popefrancisphiladelphia.com website. Most popular was a pope-themed Love Park shirt. Least popular was a canary-yellow shirt with an outline of the pontiff. Part of the proceeds were donated to local churches and Catholic charities.

“We found that a lot of people took our designs and were selling them themselves,” Tandarich said in an email.

The business sold more than 300 shirts, which was fine with Tandarich, who wanted to test some marketing ideas and “didn’t have any expectations.”


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Similarly, the nuns aren’t dwelling on the negative.

Sister Mary Columba Brienza tried to attend the pontiff’s public Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 27, but couldn’t pass through security in time. Watching him on the Jumbotron, she marveled at how he quieted the crowd with a message of tolerance and economic justice that crosses all faiths.

“I saw these people fixed on that man in white and it was so beautiful,” she said. “He brings people together and makes us realize that we’re brothers and sisters.”

(Fishman reports for The News Journal in Wilmington, Del.)