D.C. Papal Museum Struggles For Financial Foothold, Focus

A Pope John Paul II statue welcomes center visitors. The pope endorsed it as a place that would explore interfaith issues from a Catholic perspective. It was designed to be a museum, think tank and public meeting space.
A Pope John Paul II statue welcomes center visitors. The pope endorsed it as a place that would explore interfaith issues from a Catholic perspective. It was designed to be a museum, think tank and public meeting space. (Photos By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 12, 2006

The hallways and exhibition galleries of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center are brightened by glass and limestone walls. The towering doors and enormous round table in the conference room are made of the finest blanched wood. There are rows of plush, immaculate seats in the three theaters.

What's missing from the $75 million complex are visitors. Much of the time, it is virtually empty.

With Pope John Paul's endorsement, the center's founders opened the 100,000-square-foot facility in Northeast Washington in March 2001 with aspirations of turning it into a major cultural institution -- where scholars would research Catholicism's role and influence, where religious leaders would gather for interfaith dialogue, where regular people would explore God and spirituality.

Five years later, it is $40 million in debt and has not drawn the attendance or financial support its founders expected. During a 2 1/2 -hour period Thursday, only two visitors passed through.

"It was a train wreck waiting to happen," Monsignor William A. Kerr, the center's executive director, said of the project. Part museum, part think tank and part public meeting space, the center has lacked a clear focus, making it hard to raise money, Kerr said.

News of the center's financial woes -- first reported this month by the independent newspaper National Catholic Reporter -- has angered some Catholics who criticized the project before it opened for spending millions on what they saw as a high-end tribute to the pope rather than on programs for the needy.

Much of the anger is concentrated in Detroit. Its archbishop, Cardinal Adam Maida, was the center's primary backer, and the archdiocese is carrying the entire $40 million debt in the form of loans or loan guarantees. Critics have contrasted the archdiocese's spending on the center with its decision last year to close 18 schools.

Kerr, a former vice president of Catholic University who came to the center in April 2004, said last week that the financial crisis was somewhat inevitable, as the center spent its endowment on construction before opening and had no board of directors until last fall.

Planners initially forecast 200,000 to 500,000 paying visitors a year. The $8 admission fee soon was replaced by a $5 suggested donation. Even so, only about 80,000 people went through the doors last year to visit exhibits and hear concerts and conferences, up from 70,000 the year before. About 10,000 came to the center during the week Pope John Paul II died.

"We thought people would be beating paths here, but it didn't happen," Kerr said. "How exactly we would get people here was never thought through."

The board of directors is scheduled to meet for the first time March 16. The members will discuss a proposal to make religious forums the center's primary focus -- forums such as one at which Iranian clerics talked about democracy, and another at which Israeli rabbis and Italian bishops discussed the concept of God's covenant.

Major donors will be more likely to give money if they can see a clear mission, said museums director Penny Fletcher. "People need to understand where you fit in this complex of so many things happening in Washington," she said.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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