Special To The <Wanderer>

On Tuesday morning, September 13, readers of the San Antonio <Express-News> were jolted awake by a full-color photograph of a painting that was on display at an art gallery owned and operated by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word. The painting clearly showed the rear view of a naked, muscular, winged male standing with his legs spread before an altar. In case anyone had doubts as to what the "angel" was doing, the caption explained: <"Initiation,"> a painting by Houston artist Donell Hill, depicts an angel having intercourse on an altar." The accompanying story by <Express-News> Religion Writer J. Michael Parker began by saying: "A San Antonio art gallery run by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word is exhibiting oil paintings that link graphically explicit sex acts with faith. But Edna Perez-Vega, spokeswoman for the Generalate of the Congregation..., said officials of the order haven't seen the exhibit and have neither approved or disapproved of it. She said they didn't know how explicit the paintings were before the exhibit opened.

"Sister Alice Holden, director of ReBarn, a Center for Catholic Spirituality and Art, has complete autonomy to decide what art is displayed there, Perez-Vega Said. That means the Incarnate Word Order doesn't impose any limits. The Archdiocese of San Antonio also has no jurisdiction over the center or any religious orders internal affairs...

"The new exhibit by Houston artist Donell Hiss—titled 'Spiritual, Sensual, Sexual'—opened Saturday night and has about 12 paintings depicting several themes and a similar number comprising the body of work called 'Inner AIDS,' which depicts the plight of AIDS victims. The exhibit features clay sculptures of genitals embedded in flowerlike formations and oil paintings depicting sexual intercourse and passionate expressions...

"Holden, who is on vacation, said in a prepared statement that Hill, 'is doing what great artists are called to do. She's gone within, discovered herself and recovered past abuses through application of her art, and is now reaching out to the needs of society in a graphic display."

A Firestorm Of Protest

Prompted by the <Express-News> story and television reports on the exhibition which had been broadcast the preceding evening, hundreds of San Antonians telephoned the chancery office and headquarters of the Incarnate Word sisters to protest the exhibit. Some also called the office of the St. Joseph Foundation, a national organization based in San Antonio which assists Catholics in upholding their rights in the Church, asking if there was any action which might be taken in accord with canon law. The Foundation responded by preparing a formal complaint, usually called a denunciation in canon law, which was signed by five local Catholics and hand-carried to the chancery that same afternoon. The denunciation charged that Sister Alice Holden probably had violated canon 1369 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that, "A person who uses a public show or speech, published writings, or other media of social communication to blaspheme, seriously damage good morals, express wrongs against religion or against the Church or to stir up hatred or contempt against religion or the Church is to be punished with a just penalty." The document requested that San Antonio Archbishop Patrick F. Flores mount an inquest to gather the evidence and, if the facts warranted, to proceed with a penal process. According to canon law, Archbishop Flores could use either an administrative or judicial process, but the denunciation requested that he choose the latter so as to better protect the rights of the accused.

The Show Closes

By mid morning on Tuesday, reports from the news media began to circulate indicating that the Incarnate Word Community had closed the ReBarn to the public and meetings were being held behind closed doors to decide what to do next. Neither the media nor the general public had to wait very long to learn of the decision. At four o'clock that afternoon, Archbishop Flores, who was reportedly upset with the exhibit, issued a statement leaving no doubt as to where he stood. Acknowledging that, "hundreds of calls were received at the chancery'" the archbishop said, "I'm horrified—that's the only word that comes to mind—that in the city of San Antonio there would be such a display, and worse, that it is under the umbrella of a Catholic organization...I apologize to the citizens of San Antonio and I ask the Lord to forgive the artist for using horrible, pornographic approach."

Despite the earlier claims that Sister Alice was the sole judge of what was or was not put on display at the ReBarn and the Archdiocese of San Antonio had no jurisdiction, the superior general of the Congregation of Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Sister Carol Ann Jokerst, added her own apology and, according to a September 14 story in the Express-News, "reportedly asked the head of the U. S. province, under whose auspices the art center operates, to remove the offensive paintings Tuesday after she learned of the exhibit and the flood of angry telephone calls it generated."

Archbishop Flores also said that, in view of the announced intention by the congregation to remove the offending works of art, he saw no grounds to institute any formal penal process.

Reaction To The Closure

The flap over artist Donell Hill's "Spiritual, Sensual, Sexual" exhibit did not stay confined to San Antonio for long. Television reports were aired throughout the country and stories appeared on the wire services. On September 15, United Press International reported, "A church foundation said Thursday that Roman Catholic Archbishop Patrick Flores should investigate a sexually explicit art show that caused an uproar earlier this week in San Antonio.

The St. Joseph Foundation said Sister Alice Holden, director of the ReBarn Center for Spirituality and Art where the exhibit appeared , should do 'some sort of penance' for violating church law. Foundation spokesman Charles Wilson said the group—which addresses issues of church canon law [sic]—had already called for the censure of Holden before the decision was made Tuesday to close the exhibit, which was part of an AIDS awareness program."

San Antonio television stations concentrated their coverage of the story on interviews with the artist while <Express-News> columnist and fine arts critic David Anthony Racial opined, "The [St. Joseph] foundation also has reminded everyone of Rome's long, inglorious tradition of periodic outbursts of intolerance, oppression , censorship, terror, excommunication, dismemberment, death by fire or worse to those deemed guilty of embracing dangerous ideas such as believing the Earth revolves around the sun."

On Friday, a story appeared in the <Express-News> which reported that the Incarnate Word sisters had decided to relocate the entire exhibit—not just parts of it—to an undetermined site.

The story closed by saying, "In support of the original intent of the exhibit, Sister Margaret Nugent of the sisters' provincial council said the sisters will help Hill relocate the entire exhibit and help coordinate the educational dimension associated with it."

What Happens Now?

The St. Joseph Foundation's executive director, Charles M. Wilson, told <The Wanderer,> "As I see it, there are at least two troubling matters which are left hanging. The first concerns Sister Alice Holden, from whom I have yet to hear any expression of regret or apology for arranging this blasphemous exhibition. Even though it may appear that the question of a canonical was rendered moot by the closure and subsequent announcement that the exhibit would be relocated, I believe the original complaint has not been addressed. Suppose someone held up a bank, later thought better of it, apologized and returned the money, he would still have to answer for the crime, even though the apology and return of the money might well temper the punishment. In Church law, we have expiatory penalties enacted to allow the repair of a breech of order. The offense occurred and the perpetrator, like the repentant bank robber, might benefit from having to mend the damage," he said.

"The second major issue is the involvement of the congregation in helping the artist to move the exhibit and, in some unspecified way, assisting with the furtherance of the artist's original intent. When the story first broke, we were given the distinct impression by the order's spokeswoman the we were dealing merely with a lone, 'loose cannon' sister. Now we see that the order's provincial council has, in so many words, made the artist's cause its own. Perhaps this was the original intent to begin with but, whatever the case, we now have a new canonical ball game and we will wait to see where the exhibit goes and what support the congregation gives it before deciding on our course of action," Wilson said.

Wilson told <The Wanderer> that he would keep the paper informed of any further developments in this continuing story.

This article was taken from the September 29, 1994 issue of "The Wanderer," 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733. Subscription Price: $35.00 per year; six months $20.00.