D.C. Papal Museum Struggles For Financial Foothold, Focus

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The hallways and exhibition galleries of the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center are brightened by glass and limestone walls. The towering doors and enormous round table in the conference room are made of the finest blanched wood. There are rows of plush, immaculate seats in the three theaters.

What's missing from the $75 million complex are visitors. Much of the time, it is virtually empty.

With Pope John Paul's endorsement, the center's founders opened the 100,000-square-foot facility in Northeast Washington in March 2001 with aspirations of turning it into a major cultural institution -- where scholars would research Catholicism's role and influence, where religious leaders would gather for interfaith dialogue, where regular people would explore God and spirituality.

Five years later, it is $40 million in debt and has not drawn the attendance or financial support its founders expected. During a 2 1/2 -hour period Thursday, only two visitors passed through.

"It was a train wreck waiting to happen," Monsignor William A. Kerr, the center's executive director, said of the project. Part museum, part think tank and part public meeting space, the center has lacked a clear focus, making it hard to raise money, Kerr said.

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