Proposed auction of sacred altar piece stirs controversy

Historic St. Alphonsus Church, built in 1857, is located in New Orleans' Lower Garden District. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Historic St. Alphonsus Church, built in 1857, is located in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – A bejeweled altarpiece from the 19th century that was at St. Alphonsus Church during the time of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos is up for auction Nov. 16 in New York City and may never return to New Orleans.

The piece, which is scheduled to be sold at Sotheby’s auction house, is a monstrance, a vessel shaped like a cross surrounded by a sunburst. At the center is a glass case, called a luna, in which the consecrated Host is exposed for the adoration of the faithful.

Charles “Jerry” Rosato, a longtime antiques dealer who collects religious artifacts, said he bought the monstrance in the late 1990s for $5,000. He consigned it to Sotheby’s because he needed money to pay off a $30,000 Katrina-related loan.

News of the sale brought a quick rebuke from New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who said church law prohibits the sale of a sacred object to someone not affiliated with a church.

Saying he is “very concerned and very disturbed,” Aymond added, “Besides being a relic of someone who could be canonized with local ties, a monstrance holds the body of Christ and should never be auctioned off for money.”

The monstrance, which gets its name from the Latin word monstrare (to show), was made in France in 1857 by Jean Alexandre Chertier for the Irish Channel church, one of three built in the 1800s by the Redemptorists. Chertier, a renowned silversmith who specialized in liturgical art, made a silver-gilt and enamel container of holy oils that Emperor Napoleon III gave to Notre Dame Cathedral, Wood said.

The monstrance is depicted in St. Alphonsus’ main ceiling fresco, which Domenico Canova painted.

Rosato bought the vessel in the late 1990s from the Rev. Alton Carr, the pastor of St. Mary’s Assumption Church, because the parish needed money. That church, also built by the Redemptorist order, sits across Constance Street from St. Alphonsus, which was closed in 1979 and has since been used as an art and cultural center.

When Carr demurred about selling the monstrance, Rosato told him to call Monsignor Earl Woods, the archdiocesan archivist. “He said, ‘If Jerry Rosato’s buying it, he will take care of it,’” Rosato said.

Woods has died. Carr, who lives in San Antonio, could not be reached for comment.

“I wasn’t intending to make money off it,” Rosato said. “I wanted to be the caretaker of it. My intention was, when I died, to give it back to St. Alphonsus.”

Hurricane Katrina changed his plans. It wrecked the Kenner auction house, where he had been storing goods that people wanted him to sell. Rosato said his losses from wind and water damage and looting amounted to about $275,000.

He dipped into his retirement savings, but he still needed to borrow about $30,000. The monstrance, Rosato said, was the only thing he could use as collateral.

After making the rounds of well-heeled Catholics in an attempt to sell the vessel so he could pay off his loan, Rosato decided to sign it over to Sotheby’s to see what it could fetch at auction. He had to pay $1,500 to ship it to New York.

It is now scheduled to be part of an auction of 19th-century art and silver.

The monstrance is an example of silver-gilt work – silver with gold plating. It is 4 feet tall and 27 inches wide, and is adorned with an angel sculpture and paste stones.

When he was an altar boy at St. Alphonsus, Bill Murphy said, the massive 13-pound piece required three priests to carry it.

“I was always afraid they were going to drop it,” he said.

The monstrance was in St. Alphonsus during the 13 months Seelos was in New Orleans – from September 1866 until his death from yellow fever in 1867 at the age of 48. After a miraculous cure was attributed to his intervention, Seelos was beatified in 2000, and he needs one more miracle to be declared a saint.

Because Seelos was a native of the German state of Bavaria, he was assigned to St. Mary’s Assumption Church, where many German Catholics worshipped.

But he frequently crossed Constance Street to celebrate sacraments for English-speaking parishioners at St. Alphonsus, said the Rev. Byron Miller, who is the chief American advocate for Seelos’ canonization.

“Father Seelos was a tireless sacramental priest,” Miller said, adding that Seelos was valued as a man who heard confessions and was a wise counselor.

But more important than the monstrance’s tangential connection to Seelos is its iconic importance to the community, said Murphy, who called it “one of the great artifacts from the Irish Channel.”

John Wood, the head of Sotheby’s silver department, said its estimated value for the auction’s purposes is between $40,000 and $80,000, but it would take more than that to be withdrawn from the sale.

That is more than the archdiocese can afford, Aymond said.

But Rosato hasn’t given up hope of getting the monstrance back to the Irish Channel.

“Maybe someone will step up and buy it so it can come back,” he said.

David Schwab, an antiques dealer who has Rosato as a client, shares that hope. “It’s a sacred artifact,” Schwab said, “and it belongs in St. Alphonsus, not in some rich New York guy’s apartment.”


Information from: The Times-Picayune,

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AP-WF-10-26-11 1746GMT