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Vatican For Sale

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The 182 students at All Saints School in Etna, Pennsylvania, know only too well that fund-raisers are a way of life at Roman Catholic schools. The suburban Pittsburgh students have sold everything from gift-wrapping paper to candy to help meet expenses.

But this year's fund-raising campaign has become a history-making event. With the backing of one of the country's wealthiest men and the blessing of the Pope himself, All Saints' students are among the first people in the world to sell officially licensed reproductions of artwork from Vatican museums in Rome. Several schools in the Pittsburgh Diocese have geared up for similar campaigns.

Pittsburgh businessman John Connelly struck a deal with Vatican officials that gives him exclusive worldwide rights to sell reproduced images from the Vatican's 13 museums and the Sistine Chapel. Connelly, a longtime supporter of Catholic education, decided to make the items available first through the schools of the Pittsburgh Diocese, which serve about 36,000 students. Each school will retain 40 percent of the proceeds, 5 percent will go to the Vatican, and the other 55 percent will go to Connelly and his company.

"There's never, ever in the history of the church been a way to get those things out, unless you go to Rome," said the Reverend Kris Stubna, secretary of education for the diocese.

Although All Saints isn't encouraging its students to go door to door, officials have asked each student to make at least six sales from the 14-page "Treasures of the Vatican Collection" catalog. From plates to note pads, the items are replete with images of angels and other scenes from the famous frescoes in the Vatican collection. A money clip engraved with an image of St. Peter's Square is $15; $20 will buy a "Carry the Cross" pen, decorated with a Vatican-cross reproduction.

"There has been some question as to if it's prudent to be marketing the Vatican, but the response is you don't want to limit those things to those who can afford to go to Rome," Father Stubna said.

The diocese officials hope the sale will raise enough moneyso that parishes don't have to increase tuition next year. Fund-raising accounts for about 6 percent of the $68 million needed to run the diocese's 130 schools. Tuition at All Saints is $1,350 a year.

The man behind the venture has a lifetime of marketing experience. Ranked among the 400 wealthiest Americans by Forbes magazine, the 70-year-old Connelly launched a riverboat-excursion business in Pittsburgh in 1958. In more recent years, he's ventured into the gambling industry; his company, President Casinos Inc., owns casino boats in Iowa, Missouri, and Mississippi.

He turned his marketing skills to school fund raising several years ago when he founded "Apples for the Students," a nationwide program that has put thousands of computers in classrooms. The for-profit venture buys machines from Apple Computer Inc. at bulk rates and sells them to supermarket chains at a discount. Schools can then exchange grocery receipts collected by parents and friends for the computers.

Connelly, who is helping to raise money to build a residence for the College of Cardinals in the Vatican, said his work with schools helped clinch the art deal with church officials. "They know my involvement with the schools," he said.

Helping Pittsburgh's Catholic schools raise funds is just the beginning for Treasures Inc., the division of J. Edward Connelly Associates that is marketing the Vatican reproductions. Connelly hopes to expand the fund-raising efforts nationwide. He has estimated that the venture could evolve into a $1 billion-a-year business, giving a much-needed dose of financial support to parochial schools along the way.

"This is the biggest thing to ever hit Catholic schools," he claims.

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