North County Journals | July 17, 2002

Jesuit Museum requires having wisdom of Solomon

Opinion Shaper
by Josh Renaud

Let's take a new look at the battle over the Museum of Western Jesuit Missions by comparing the situation to an Old Testament story.

The museum board and the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) of the Missouri Province are fighting in court because they both claim to own the contents of the Jesuit museum in Hazelwood. The museum, housed in the Rock Building, is all that's left of the old St. Stanislaus Seminary.

It contains a wide variety of priceless artifacts related to the Jesuit ministry here. Some of the items date to before Columbus' voyages. For almost 30 years the museum was run peacefully and the collection was increased. So why the brouhaha now?

The province wants to move the artifacts to St. Louis University's new art museum in the Central West End, where they say the collection would be better preserved and more accessible to the public. The province says bringing the Rock Building up to "museum conditions" would cost $2 million.

The museum board is opposed to this plan. They say the museum contents and the Rock Building have a symbiotic relationship, each giving the other meaning and value. Without a museum, the Rock Building serves no purpose. And what good, they ask, is an old bedroom set from the Seminary if you can't see it in a genuine Seminary bedroom?

Many civic leaders, historians, area residents and former Jesuit seminarians are also opposed to the Jesuits' plan. They don't want to lose a valuable part of the Florissant Valley's history. Florissant, Hazelwood and the St. Louis County Historic Buildings Commission passed resolutions urging the province to reconsider its decision.

The two sides have gone to court, seeking a legal solution. But this is mostly a religious matter, isn't it? Perhaps a religious perspective might help.

The Old Testament tells of two women who asked King Solomon to settle a dispute. The two lived together, and each had given birth the same week. One night, one of the babies died. Each woman insisted the remaining baby was hers.

Solomon used a simple test--a test of the heart. He declared he would split the baby and give half to each mother. One was filled with compassion and asked the king to give the baby to the other woman, so the baby could live. The other didn't mind if the baby was split.

Solomon recognized the genuine mother by her dedication to the child, and he gave the baby to her.

In that light, consider the two sides in the museum case.

The Jesuit province's history of support and involvement with the museum is shaky at best. The province says it wants to protect the collection by moving it to SLU's art museum. But much of the collection, such as tools, weapons and traps used by the pioneer Jesuits, would be out of place in an art museum.

It's conceivable that such parts of the collection might be sold. The province stands to gain financially once the Rock Building is no longer being used as a museum. When that happens, the Gateway College of Evangelism, which owns the other former seminary buildings, is obligated to pay the province a sum to be negotiated.

The museum board, on the other hand, has maintained and increased the collection at its own expense for 30 years. The board sponsors social events, lectures, and readings. Board members say they would willing to loan parts of the collection to SLU for exhibits.

Going to court over this issue seems a waste of money. The best solution would be to keep the museum where it is, while improving the condition of the Rock Building. The Jesuits say it would cost $2 million. So why can't that money be raised? The St. Louis area has no shortage of wealthy benefactors or interested parties.

If the Jesuit province is the true owner of the museum collection, then why isn't it willing to go the extra mile? Where is the dedication? It's time we asked.