Sheen Center Pre Partum Blues

The single New Testament reference to anything that comes close to the arts is that messy episode with Herodias’ daughter. Was it dirty dancing? Or “natural” dance, precursor to Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and the pioneers of improvisational movement? Either way, we know how the program ended.

Adolph Gustav Mossa. Salomé (early 20th C.)
Adolph Gustav Mossa. Salomé (early 20th C.)

There are better reasons to be uneasy about the efficacy of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture as the zenith of evangelization. History is full of mischief. The Center has already suffered two blows before the ribbons are cut.

Expensively architected and stage-designed, the state-of-the-art center lost its scheduled executive director. Msgr. Michael F. Hull—erstwhile pastor of the Church of the Guardian Angel in Chelsea, Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary, and ardent member of MoMA—has gone missing. The journalist who had interviewed him in March for The Wall Street Journal tells me that the monsignor “left the Church.”

To clarify, I phoned the rectory at Guardian Angel. The resident priest who answered said: “I know nothing of his whereabouts.” A call to Dunwoodie elicited only the comment that Msgr. Hull was no longer there. Was there anyone at the seminary who could answer a few questions about the Center itself? Who has taken on directorship in the monsignor’s absence? After a lengthy pause, the receptionist offered to connect me to the Center’s press office. Unable to put the call through, she told me to email. Next, I tried the phone number listed for the Center. It connects only to a ticketing service. (“Have your credit card ready. If you are calling about Ticket Mania’s Gold Club . . . .”)

Immersion in the arts can have unintended side effects. Conversion can go both ways.

Louis Boilly. The Effect of Melodrama (1830). Musée Lambinet, Versailles
Louis Boilly. The Effect of Melodrama (1830). Musée Lambinet, Versailles

Bishop Sheen, as he was known, was a great evangelist, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. His humanity, graceful wit, and scholarship—carried so nimbly—were matchless gifts to broad audiences. He was a captivating performer whose radio and television ministry instructed and enlivened generations. His own bearing no less than his words testified that peace of soul does not come from man himself. To this day, the Emmy award-winning priest has no equal.

Yet that is not necessarily why the Center was named after him. Other names are better known to the demographic most likely to frequent the downtown theater scene. But the archbishop, elevated to Venerable in 2012, was expected to be canonized soon, possibly as early as next year. With his remains buried beneath the main altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the new Center would serve as a fashionable annex to the shrine St. Patrick’s would become.

That could explain why the archdiocese initiated a colossal and costly cleaning project of St. Patrick’s. The interior is nearly invisible under miles of planks and scaffolding that will remain into 2015. The narthex has been outfitted with two crass dispensing machines that spit out souvenir medallions. Add a glitzy billboard for tourists too jet-lagged to recognize which attraction they are standing in. Insult follows with wee-bitsy votive candles that burn only for as long as it takes to deposit two dollars in the mite box.

It is a short walk from those vending machines to suspicion that the bazaar was triggered by anticipation of pilgrims to St. Fulton Sheen’s tomb. But there’s the rub: It was announced at the beginning of this month that the cause for Archbishop Sheen’s canonization has been suspended. It is a sad, unedifying story of clerical politics. Fr. Roger J. Landry, over at The National Catholic Register, covered the battle of the bones in detail. His commentary deserves to be read in full.

Achille Beltrone. Theatre on a TransAtlantic Liner (1919).
Achille Beltrone. Theatre on a TransAtlantic Liner (1919).

Bishop Sheen was a virtuoso in distinguishing between the anodyne of his era—psychoanalysis—and the true source of the soul’s freedom from unease. His essays, particularly “The Philosophy of Anxiety” and “Psychoanalysis and Confession,” have not aged. Were he writing and speaking today, it is tempting to think he would address that other false god of our time: art-and-culture, a compound word that tallies up to money and religion at the same time.

The Center expects to become self-supporting. Which means it expects to make a profit as an institution for rent. Described by its own in-house consultant Nick Leavens as simply “a new off-Broadway arts complex,” it will function as a hub for the circulation of tax exempt monies. Playbill quotes the press release:

Companies who have already signed on to use The Sheen Center include The New York International Fringe Festival, Strange Sun Theater, /the claque/, Terranova, Wingspan Arts, MorDance and Voyager Theater Company.

The Sheen Center will also house four spacious studios of varying sizes, which will be available for rehearsals, meetings and classes, among others. The Studios at The Sheen Center will be available for rent seven days a week. Art gallery space on the main floor will feature a full rotating schedule of exhibits. It will also be available as a space for intimate receptions.

The  complex stands on the site of the defunct parish of Our Lady of Loretto which became a Catholic Charities shelter for homeless men more than seventy years ago. The name of the Center’s largest performance space, the 250-seat Loretto Auditorium, nods to the displacement of the Bowery homeless by the city’s expanding arts-and-culture scene. In gutting the old structure, rebuilding, and outfitting it to create an arts center, the archdiocese mimics the trajectory of the country’s declining manufacturing sector.

All across the country, old mills, factory buildings and processing plants have been repurposed as some combination of studio, exhibition, or museum space for contemporary art. Think of Mass MoCA, the converted factory complex in North Adams, Massachusetts; or DIA, once a thriving Nabisco plant that supported working class Newburgh. These and hundreds of lesser known arts-related renovations stamp the landscape of post-industrial America.

Following suit, Sheen Center is the archdiocese’s monument to post-Catholicism.

Max Oppenheimer. Salomé (1919). Private collection, Milan.
Max Oppenheimer. Salomé (1919). Private collection, Milan.