History of the Museum of the Cross

The first set of The Stations of the Cross painted by nationally-famous artist Ben Stahl came from a commission from Mr. Leonard Davidow of The Catholic Press in Chicago. These paintings were featured in a special edition Bible dedicated to The Pope published in 1953. This bible was “The Family Rosary Edition of the Holy Bible” edited by Reverend John P. O’Connel (The Catholic Press). Fourteen pages in this Bible were devoted to full page reproductions of each painting.

In order to have historical accuracy, Mr. Stahl and his wife were sent to Jerusalem for several months to obtain historically accurate research for the paintings with the assistance of biblical scholars. The second set, those offered here in museum quality prints, were much larger and far better, taking Stahl over two years to complete. Each original painting measured 6-feet x 9-feet having handmade frames crafted by The House of Heydenryk in New York, a world famous framer since 1845. Stahl added a fifteenth painting to the museum collection, “The Resurrection” as he said he wanted the story to end on a positive note.

These paintings were a huge success when the museum opened in 1965 and quickly gained national attention. In a quote from a letter written to Stahl from famous American artist Norman Rockwell, Rockwell writes about the 15 paintings; “Ben, we are all but illustrators but you are among the masters. I am filled with admiration.”

Sadly, one night in 1969, the museum was broken into and all 15 paintings were stolen. All night the thieves worked as the paintings were carefully removed from their frames and each individual tack which held the canvas to their stretcher bars were removed. In the morning the floor was strewn with stretcher bars and thousands of tacks. No other paintings on loan were taken. “The Moment of Silent Prayer” a large painting by Stahl on loan to the museum from Mr. Don McNeal (National radio show “Don McNeal’s Breakfast Club”) was not stolen. This painting was known as, “The Miracle Painting” as it withstood the huge McCormick Place fire in Chicago in 1967. It alone remained standing in the McCormick Place lobby after the fire untouched by flame or water while steel girders melted around it. None of the 15 Stations in Stahl’s museum were insured as Stahl said after the robbery, “I had great trust in people and besides, who would steal such large religious paintings?” The national press called the robbery, “The second largest art theft of the decade.” These painting are valued today at $10 million.

Further information can be found - Google the television program “Unsolved Mysteries – Museum of the Cross Sarasota, Florida, ABC Primetime, Ben Stahl art theft.

Years later after the robbery, David Stahl’s own investigation, gaining material for the television program Unsolved Mysteries, he asked the FBI for files pertaining to the theft, under The Freedom of Information Act and was sent a thick file with absolutely everything redacted…a very strange thing to receive. He then went to the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department to see their file and found it holding a single 5x7 photograph showing the exterior of the museum. A year later, he sent another FOIA request to the FBI and was told in a rather stern letter that the file had been destroyed and in other words telling him not to bother the FBI any more…that the case was closed.