The Philadelphia archdiocese has always been one of the crown jewels of bricks-and-mortar American Catholicism, as well as a bastion of ethnic Catholicism -- and crony clericalism, alas.
All of those things, once sources of pride, are now threatening to sink the archdiocese, and Archbishop Charles Chaput has taken many radical steps to try to right the ship and steady its finances.
The latest step: a plan sell the remarkable collection of art of the archdiocesan seminary, which includes home-grown treasures like portraits by Thomas Eakins, Philip Pearlstine, and Alice Neel.
The Inky reports:
The portraits tell a story of particular significance to the history of the seminary and its robust role in the spiritual and intellectual life of Philadelphia.
Although he was most likely agnostic, and in his youth was strongly anticlerical, Eakins established keen friendships with several seminarians, a story vividly illustrated by these works.
Perhaps none rises to the rarefied aesthetic level of Eakins' The Gross Clinic, offered for sale by Thomas Jefferson University in 2006 and acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for $68 million after an intense fund-raising campaign to keep it in the city.
But that does not diminish the window the portraits open onto the life of Gilded Age Philadelphia, a time when the Catholic Church was expanding and Eakins was boring into the urban psyche.
Seminary and diocesan officials say that they are still evaluating their options and that no decisions on sales have been made. But sources close to the diocese say the appraisal process has begun.
They also say that the National Gallery in Washington has expressed interest.
Yes, it's easy to say the Catholic Church should sell its art and put the money to better purposes. And as the seminary rector says, "It's a seminary. It's not a museum."
But giving up such treasures, especially sending them out of town, seems painful to me. Philly isn't Detroit. Not yet. Is there some way to keep them in the seminary on display for paying customers? Or a way to keep them in the city?
Or should the church just sell them?