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Connelly's plan to market replicas never took hold beyond Pittsburgh

Vatican treasures a bust

Tuesday, January 09, 2001

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Pittsburgh businessman John E. Connelly has lost his much-heralded contract to sell Vatican-related merchandise through parochial schools nationwide and a chain of museum shops.

This Christmas ornament was part of the display at the closed store at Station Square.

The contract was canceled in March after the school sales never got beyond the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Vatican museum shops never made it past a test marketing run at Station Square, said Ross Dacal, vice president of Treasures Inc.

Connelly founded Treasures Inc. in 1996 to market the Vatican items. The company still has a backlog of more than 300 types of items, which it continues to sell through parishes and a Web site,

"Those are just the remnants. But what we have left is quite a lot," Dacal said.

In 1996, Connelly received what was to be an exclusive contract to sell replicas of artwork in the Vatican museums. The contract was renewable yearly for up to 10 years, Dacal said. Its principal goal was to make church-related items accessible for the Holy Year of 2000.

"They selected Mr. Connelly because he is a master marketer with a history of success," Dacal said.

Connelly had other connections to the Vatican as well. In the mid-1990s, he pledged $13 million toward the construction of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a hotel where cardinals and other church dignitaries stay when they visit the Vatican. While the hotel was still under construction, Connelly suffered serious financial reverses.

The stock price of President Casino Inc., his principal business venture, plunged. His shares were worth $107 million in early 1995. But as hotel construction was under way in September 1996, the stock flopped and the value of his shares fell to $14.7 million -- scarcely more than the amount of his pledge.

It is not known if Connelly's setbacks delayed payment on the Vatican hotel. Dacal said that Connelly remains active in Vatican philanthropy, including the hotel.

Treasures Inc. was launched in June 1996 with Connelly's prediction that, "we think it will ultimately be a billion-dollar-a-year-business."

But a murder and high tariffs got in the way, Dacal said.

The first plan was for students to sell merchandise door-to-door. Schools would keep 40 percent and the Vatican would get 5 percent. While the publicity focused on Vatican reproductions, the school merchandise included many inexpensive devotional items that could be bought elsewhere, Dacal said.

In 1997, Treasures Inc. planned to expand into New York and New Jersey. But as they were making their pitch, a child in New Jersey was murdered by a neighbor while selling wrapping paper for an unrelated school fund-raiser door-to-door.

"After that, there was reluctance from the dioceses to send children out for fund raising," Dacal said.

Treasures Inc. switched to sales inside churches and schools. But that doesn't generate as much volume as catalog sales, Dacal said.

"When you send the children out to sell, and the school has 300 students, you have 300 salesmen. Now there are just one or two people who chair the event," Dacal said.

Calls to a half-dozen schools that had used Vatican Treasures as a fund-raiser drew mixed reviews. All Saints School in Etna had been the first to try the program in 1996 and used it for three years.

"The first year it was worthwhile, but the next two years it didn't have much merit at all," said Peter Ramage, the school principal.

But Virginia O'Donnell, who organizes fund-raisers for St. Teresa of Avila in Ross, said she has never made as much profit from so little effort as she did at a Vatican Treasures sale last month.

"It was wonderful that they were doing something for us to help the Catholic faith, without much of a profit for themselves at all," she said.

Vatican Treasures workers trucked 20 tables worth of merchandise to the church for a two-day sale in early December. Gross sales were $4,500, and O'Donnell soon had $1,800 in hand for the parish mortgage reduction fund.

"The prices were fantastic," she said.

Plans for a chain of Vatican museum shops, carrying reproductions from the Vatican museums, shipped from the museums' own inventory, never got off the ground, Dacal said. After shipping charges and tariffs "we discovered, and informed the Vatican, that the product had become too expensive for the American market," Dacal said.

Dacal said the volume of sales done by a first store in Station Square indicated that a chain should not be launched.

In 1998, Connelly organized a U.S. tour of Vatican artwork featuring angels, called "The Invisible Made Visible: Angels from the Vatican." He lined up Chrysler Corp. as a sponsor. When Treasures Inc. reproductions were sold in conjunction with the exhibit, even the priciest moved, Dacal said.

"Our analysis showed that a museum store needs to be in a museum," he said.

Staff writers Johnna A. Pro and Steve Massey contributed to this story.

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