A number of dioceses across the nation have museums that tell the story of their area’s Catholic history. Museums provide a chance for history and learning to come alive; and for believers, it is a chance for the faith to come alive in a hands-on way.
Here is a look at three museums that would be well worth a visit.
First Mass in America
On Sept. 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed and proclaimed what is now St. Augustine, Fla., for Spain and the Church.
It was here that Menéndez knelt to kiss a wooden cross presented to him by Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain of his expedition.
It was on these grounds that Father López would celebrate the first parish Mass and begin work at America’s first mission.
Much of this history comes alive at the Mission Nombre de Dios (Name of God) Museum, which is located on these sacred grounds. The museum was the vision of Bishop Joseph Patrick Hurley, who served as the bishop of this diocese from 1940-1967. He had big plans for the 400th anniversary of the diocese in 1965. Among them was the erection of a 208-foot cross, a votive chapel for world peace and the beginning of a library and museum. However, the extensive costs of the other projects meant the elimination of the library/museum.
"Archbishop Hurley’s desire for the museum was rooted in his interest and respect for the unique history of this, the site of the first parish Mass and the first shrine to Mary in the early 1600s (Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche) [in America]," said Eric Johnson, director of the mission’s museum. "As the diocese held many significant artifacts and documents, including the oldest written records of European origin anywhere in the United States, Bishop Hurley wanted a place to showcase these treasures."
His vision did not come to fruition until 2010, when St. Augustine’s Bishop Victor Galeone dedicated the Mission
Nombre de Dios Museum.
The museum includes the original casket of the founder of St. Augustine, Menéndez de Avilés. Exhibits also include copies of significant documents, a recording of the Our Father in the Timucuan language (the language of the Timucua people who inhabited the area when the Spanish arrived in 1565). There are also displays with Native American and Spanish artifacts uncovered on the mission grounds through archaeological excavations by the University of Florida.
The museum also contains a diorama depicting the first Mass in North America.
According to Johnson, visitors enjoy how the architectural design is aesthetically appealing and enhanced by the beautiful mission grounds.
"Visitors often comment on how open, inviting and hospitable the museum is as they enter."
In the lower level of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, Ind., religious artifacts tell the Catholic history of this corner of northeast Indiana.
Father Paul Widmann has served as the museum director for 34 years.
According to him, the museum exists due to a "wise old priest," who saved a number of pre-Vatican II items that became the basis of this museum.
"Msgr. Thomas Durkinhad collected sacred vessels, artwork and other interesting things over the years. This collection spawned the idea of a museum, which then opened in the early 1980s," he told the Register.
Permanent exhibits at the museum include the history of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese’s cathedral, a large collection of relics and vestments, as well as an in-depth history of each of the diocese’s bishops.
Over the years, rotating exhibits have featured the life and legacy of the late Bishop John D’Arcy, who served the diocese from 1985 to 2010; a look at traditions involving November and its commemorations of saints and souls; and Eucharistic adoration. More recently, the museum had a display on the papal transition from Benedict to Francis.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors walk through the museum’s doors each year.
Father Widmann, a pastor in charge of two area parishes, noted that he enjoys every moment he has working in the museum.
"It has such a rich history of the faith in this area," he said. "It brings Catholicism alive, and it makes it tangible, as it connects sites around the city to the local Church."
In the 1950s, Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a household name in the United States. His half-hour television program, Life Is Worth Living, drew as many as 10 million viewers weekly. With his charming demeanor, the archbishop tackled the moral issues of the day, often using a blackboard.
These days, his life and legacy are remembered at the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Museum. It is on the same floor as the Peoria Diocesan Museum. Both museums opened in 2008, during a renovation of the diocese’s Spalding Pastoral Center. Interestingly, one block away from the museums sits the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, where Sheen attended grade school, learned to serve Mass and was ordained a priest on Sept. 20, 1919.
The Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation maintains the museums.
"Throughout the years, many holy men and women have brought people closer to God through their witness, writings and conversations. Archbishop Fulton Sheen is a priest who touched many lives and converted many souls — and continues to do so today," said Msgr. Stanley Deptula, executive director of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation.
According to Julie Enzenberger, who serves as the administrator for the Archbishop Sheen Foundation, the famed archbishop never forgot his Peoria roots, nor the city and the diocese.
The Sheen Museum displays a wide variety of artifacts from the archbishop’s life, which are housed in five collections. These artifacts include writings, books, photos and a selection of his vestments and episcopal regalia, including an ornate throne donated by Sheen’s family.
"It seems like we get something in (for the museum) every week from relatives and people who knew him," noted Enzenberger.
"Sheen never kept anything for himself. Many people who were devoted to Sheen and just want their items to be safely kept send us items to house in the museum."
The diocesan museum offers a number of items that highlight the rich history of Peoria Catholics, including the legacy of previous bishops.
Enzenberger related that the museum has been highlighting the diocese’s ethnic churches recently.
As for the Sheen-related items, her favorite display is on his cause for canonization.
In June 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared Archbishop Sheen "venerable," which is the second step in the process of the cause for canonization. It recognizes that he lived a life of heroic virtue.
Then, just this spring, medical experts approved a miracle involving the miraculous healing of a stillborn baby in the Peoria Diocese, furthering the Rome stages of the cause.
"There are things in this exhibit that you would never see elsewhere," Enzenberger told the Register. "For instance, we have the field documents, the boxes that were sent (to Rome) and the actual
positio book, which contains all of the documentation that went into the nine years that proved his heroic virtue."
Msgr. Deptula says that these museums are tools of evangelization, as the displays and variety of items bring people closer to Christ, which visitors recognize.
Enzenberger explained, "People come from all over the world to visit us."
Eddie O’Neill writes
from Rolla, Missouri.
Mission Nombre de Dios Museum
27 Ocean Ave.
St. Augustine, FL 32084
Cathedral Museum of
Ft. Wayne-South Bend
915 South Clinton St.
Fort Wayne, IN 46802
Museums of the Diocese of Peoria
Spalding Pastoral Center
419 NE Madison Ave.
Peoria, IL 61603
Jubilee Museum &
Catholic Cultural Center
57 S. Grubb St.
Columbus, OH 43215
Museum of Virginia Catholic History
Cathedral of Sacred Heart
18 N. Laurel St.
Richmond, VA 23220
Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis
4431 Lindell Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63108
207 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM 87501
Catholic Heritage Museum
5800 Weiss St.
Saginaw, MI 48603