CATHOLIC VALUES COLUMNIST
When you first drive up to the Jubilee Museum, there is no indication of the treasures that await inside. Visitors are welcomed by a small, mostly empty parking lot, which gives way to a towering, yet plain, three-story brick building that looks its age of 106. To enter, visitors walk up a set of creaky metal stairs to a set of doors, where they must ring a doorbell to be let in through the large metal doors. Only then is the treasure chest of Catholic art and artifacts opened wide for all.
The Jubilee Museum is located in Columbus, Ohio, and is in its twentieth year of existence. Dubbed the largest diversified collection of Catholic art in the United States by the Vatican, the contents of the museum rival those of other notable Catholic museums around the world, even in Rome. Its 24 rooms display various aspects of Catholic life and history through the ages, even dating back to the time period of Jesus Christ.
“Anything that’s Catholic or Christian we pretty much have here in the building,” said Shawn Kenney, executive director of the Jubilee Museum. “From the nativity scenes to the missals, statues to pipe organs, we’ve had them all.”
Kenney used the museum’s Holy Land Collection, which contains pieces donated by the Franciscans of the Holy Land, as an example. On display is a chalice that has an amethyst worn by Mary, Queen of Scots, embedded into its base. There is also a spearhead similar to the one said to have pierced the side of Christ on the cross and several coins of the era, including widow’s mites that Jesus referred to in one of his parables.
“These coins were literally around during the time of Christ,” Kenney said. “For all we know, one of those coins in the display could have been in the temple that day, thrown in the coffer. We don’t know, but it’s amazing we have this connection.”
“You rarely see papal zucchettos on display like they do at the Jubilee Museum,” said Alex Lamparella, a sophomore at Franciscan University of Steubenville and a frequent visitor of the museum. “The papal room is a place where you can get so close to some of the closest people to God on earth that have become saints or are on their way.”
The museum also houses a unique tie between two U.S. presidents and the origin of the Catholic Church in Ohio. The Jacob Dittoe family had petitioned the federal government for land in Somerset to build the first Catholic church in Ohio, and as required by law, it was signed by both the president and secretary of state, which at the time were two of the Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively. The Dittoe family gave the deed, which has been authenticated, to the museum, along with Dittoe’s personal Bible and a branch from the tree under which the first Mass in Ohio was celebrated in 1811 by the future archbishop of Cincinnati, the Rev. Edward Fenwick.
The other rooms include a chapel with the relics of several saints, including a piece of the cross Jesus was crucified on; one dedicated to the Tridentine Latin Mass; another with hundreds of Bibles; and a room telling the life of Christ through nativity scene-like displays by the Italian maker Fontanini. These are just a few of the rooms visitors will see on their visits.
The museum has grown significantly since it was first opened in 1998 by the Rev. Kevin Lutz with just four rooms. Lutz, an avid history fan, came to Columbus as pastor of Holy Family Church, just down the street from the old parish school building, which was hardly being used.
“The school had long since closed,” Lutz said, “but I had this huge building, part of which was used for bingo, part for arts and crafts and part of a soup kitchen. I really don’t have much like for bingo, so I shut that down.”
Soon, Columbus Bishop James Griffin, following the direction of the Vatican, urged the diocese’s parishes to commemorate the Jubilee Year 2000 with some sort of project. Some parishes were going to paint their building and others were going to plant gardens, but Lutz had something else in mind.
“I thought, ‘We have this big building, why not just do a little retrospect,’” Lutz said.
Lutz used some religious pieces he had accumulated over his time as a priest to fill up four classrooms in the old building.
“It was an instant hit,” Lutz said. “People started coming and right away, on the first day, people were bringing in things.”
By 2000, the museum received permission from the bishop to remain a permanent collection and began drawing the attention of people around the world, even the Vatican.
Pope John Paul II heard about the museum and appointed Lutz as the first American consultant to the Pontifical Commission for Cultural Heritage, a role he served in for seven years, five of those under John Paul II and two more under Pope Benedict XVI.
Several bishops and four cardinals have visited the museum, including Cardinal Jorge María Mejía, the Vatican archivist who gave it the distinction of being the largest diversified collection of Catholic art in the country.
The museum usually gets its pieces through donations, but others have more of an interesting tale behind them.
Lutz once received a call from a seminarian in London who had found a missal from the 1500s and asked if he wanted it for the museum. After hearing the asking price was only $60, Lutz said, “Buy it and run like hell.”
Another missal, from 1607, came into his possession after a woman brought it in and asked if he wanted it. She said a Jewish neighbor had fought in World War II and was in Italy running for his life when a dropped bomb hit a cathedral and sent pieces flying in every direction. The missal dropped at the soldier’s feet and he brought it back as a souvenir before giving it to his Catholic neighbor, who then brought it to Lutz.
Aside from housing several significant pieces, the museum also rescues altars, pipe organs and other religious objects that have fallen into the wrong hands or have been misused. Lutz and Kenney refurbish them to be sent back into use by parishes around the state. One altar Lutz was working on had cigarette stains and knife gouges, but he hopes to return it to sacred use one day.
“That’s a pretty sad end for an altar that held the body and blood of Christ to suddenly be lying with beer bottles or kegs, or people burning their cigarettes on the end of it,” Lutz said.
Lutz estimated that half of the churches in the Columbus diocese have received something from the museum, a point Kenney concurred with.
“We’re custodians of those things for a while, but we want them back out in the churches,” Kenney said. “Sometimes, this stuff is a little expensive but we buy it just to get it out of that situation, to get it back in the church for where it was intended for.”
In addition to salvaging the history of the Catholic Church, the museum is also a means to evangelize, Kenney said. He noted that approximately 68 percent of the museum’s visitors are not Catholic, but still come to the museum because of the history it showcases.
“We get Jewish people in here all the time and we can share the Old Testament with them,” Kenney said. “We’ve had Muslims say, ‘You know, we respect the Virgin Mary. The Koran speaks highly of the Virgin Mary,’ so they want to see everything that pertains to the Virgin Mary.”
Some have even credited the museum as the turning point in their conversion to Catholicism. Kenney said there was a Lutheran invited to a wedding reception held at the museum, but didn’t want to go because it was Catholic. His wife forced him to go and Lutz took the attendees on a tour, leaving the man “completely changed.” He began meeting with Lutz privately before beginning the RCIA process to convert to Catholicism, which he completed two years later and has brought someone into the Catholic Church every year since.
“That’s not necessarily what we’re trying to do, but when it happens, it’s a beautiful thing,” Kenney said. “Each person we can bring to the faith or bring closer to Christ is wonderful.”
The museum receives about one long-bed pickup truck’s worth of donations each week and already has three off-site warehouses, so free space is almost non-existent at the museum. In addition, several of the older Bibles and missals are in dire need of a humidity-controlled environment, not the boiler-heated halls they are in today. Kenney said the museum already owns a plot of land and would like to build a new museum soon, one that can become even more of a national Catholic museum.
Ideally, Kenney hopes that the new building could include a 24-hour adoration chapel, lecture series and more to draw people in from all over the world to visit the museum’s estimated $25 million collection.
“Our mission statement is ‘To preserve the Catholic mind and memory,’” Kenney said. “It’s a draw for everyone. They want to hear our pipe organs, they want to see our stained glass. Our target audience is Catholics, but to me, our audience is who’s walking through the door every day.”