On Dec. 20, the Knights of Columbus Museum on State Street will be bringing a piece of the Vatican to New Haven. The Vatican has selected the museum to exhibit the world premiere of Michelangelo’s study models for St. Peter’s Basilica. The 500-year-old display, Crafting St. Peter’s Architectural Treasures of the Vatican, will include intricately-painted wooden miniature models of St. Peter’s Basilica.
As chief architect for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo was directly involved in the creation of these models, which he meant to use in order to obtain the Pope’s approval to continue with the project, Larry Sowinski, the museum’s director, said. These models are miniature relative to the grand structures they preceded in Rome, but they will be lofty enough for visitors of the museum to walk under.
Over a century of philanthropic and religious collaboration with the Vatican has created close ties between the Knights of Columbus and the Pope. Pope John Paul II has donated numerous gifts to the museum, including presents he received from Yassir Arafat for the Pope’s peace efforts in the Middle East. Choosing the Knights of Columbus Museum to display Michelangelo’s models for the first time in the world will be by far the greatest honor or gift that the Pope has bestowed upon the Knights, consolidating a century of cooperation.
This new display may be worth a trip to the Knights of Columbus Museum, but existing exhibits don’t seem to draw more than a couple of New Havenites each weekend. The museum is divided into four galleries: Inside the Father McGivney Gallery, the Columbus Gallery, At the Papal Gallery, and the Wall of History Gallery. The message of the somewhat-narrow scope of displays may be lost upon the general New Haven community, but it has become a mecca of sorts for busloads of visiting Knights of Columbus members and their families.
Few would suspect that “The Strong Right Arm of the Church,” as the Knights of Columbus call themselves, extends right here into New Haven. This Catholic fraternity boasts of an international retinue of 1.6 million members, hailing from the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Guatemala, Guam and Saipan. Former Knights include Babe Ruth and John F. Kennedy.
Founded in New Haven by Father McGivney, the Knights of Columbus met for the first time in the basement of St. Mary’s Church on Hillhouse Avenue in October of 1881. This small group of Irish American laymen, united under Father McGivney, felt the need for Catholic solidarity in a time of anti-Catholic hostility in America. They rallied behind the patron figure of Columbus, since his arrival marked the introduction of Catholicism into America.
Inside the Father McGivney Gallery documents the conception of the fraternity and the details of its founder’s life. The Wall of History Gallery documents the development of the Knights of Columbus over the next century. It traces their efforts to proselytize young Catholics, fight communism in 1937, secure insurance for families in poverty, promote religious liberty, and fight abortion.
“[The great thing] about the Knights is that they stay with their principles and don’t modify them over time,” Sowinski said. “What [was right then] is what is right now, and what’s moral is moral.”
The Columbus Gallery is comprised mostly of paraphernalia from the 1893 Columbian World Exposition. It includes quirky relics, from Columbus push-back pins and Columbus dominoes to postcards written from the Exposition. The Papal Gallery contains artifacts from the Vatican, mostly gifts from Pope John Paul II, such as his Mitre — a gold liturgical headdress embedded with red beads.
During World War I, the fraternity raised $44 million for soldiers’ welfare centers. Its modern-day counterparts have carried on its philanthropic mission and created a Hero’s Fund for the victims of Sept. 11. Currently, there is a temporary display at the museum commemorating the attack on the World Trade Center. The display includes a burnished steel ornamental post from the World Trade Center Plaza that snapped under the force of the collapse.
With the Michelangelo exhibit, the museum’s somewhat-sparse displays are bound to draw the attention of more secular audiences in New Haven.