The St. Charles collection includes more than 200 paintings and countless artifacts, most in storage. But prominent works are on permanent display and publicly viewable, including six portraits Eakins painted on the grounds - five seminarians and one lay figure. One of the six is on long-term loan from the American Catholic Historical Society in Philadelphia.
The portraits tell a story of particular significance to the history of the seminary and its robust role in the spiritual and intellectual life of Philadelphia.
Although he was most likely agnostic, and in his youth was strongly anticlerical, Eakins established keen friendships with several seminarians, a story vividly illustrated by these works.
Perhaps none rises to the rarefied aesthetic level of Eakins' The Gross Clinic, offered for sale by Thomas Jefferson University in 2006 and acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for $68 million after an intense fund-raising campaign to keep it in the city.
But that does not diminish the window the portraits open onto the life of Gilded Age Philadelphia, a time when the Catholic Church was expanding and Eakins was boring into the urban psyche.
Seminary and diocesan officials say that they are still evaluating their options and that no decisions on sales have been made. But sources close to the diocese say the appraisal process has begun.
They also say the National Portrait Gallery in Washington has shown considerable interest in Neel's portrait of Archbishop Jean Jadot, commissioned by the diocese in 1976. The fate of Pearlstine's portrait of Cardinal John Krol, also commissioned in 1976 and paid for by Krol himself after a donor balked, is also uncertain.
The seminary has not responded to the National Gallery, diocesan sources say; asked about its reputed interest, a spokeswoman for the gallery said there was no comment.
Bishop Timothy Senior, rector of the seminary, declined to discuss any specific paintings or artifacts.
He did note that, once consolidation took place, there would be less space to store art and objects. He noted that art must be maintained, a costly process and a distraction from St. Charles Borromeo's core mission.
"It's not a museum," he said. "It's a seminary."
Senior said, "The seminary is in very serious financial condition.
"My mission is to put the seminary in a sustainable situation."
The question is, how?
"The potential sale of the art, some of the art, is part of a strategy, perhaps, to find a way to maintain our core mission," he said. "No decision has been made. We've identified a number of paintings we believe are more valuable. The institution is not in a position to give away these works."
That would seem to preclude an agreement with a sister institution, such as Villanova University, home to Eakins' striking Portrait of the Rt. Rev. John J. Fedigan, former president of the school.
Eakins scholars say the painter and his studio mate, Samuel Murray, a devout Catholic, would take bicycle rides through Fairmount Park on Sundays and end up at St. Charles Borromeo. They would stay for dinner, chatting with scholars and students. Eakins enjoyed attending vespers, Murray said, listening to the seminarians chant in Latin, a language he knew well.
He was already familiar with the seminary, having been introduced to Archbishop James Frederick Wood, the first archbishop of Philadelphia, by physician Samuel Gross in the 1870s. Wood oversaw construction of the seminary and the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. He was a man of intellect and achievement, and Eakins asked him to pose.
The result, painted in 1877 and damaged by a disastrous 1930s restoration, hangs in the seminary's Eakins Room. (A sketch hinting at the work's original brilliance is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.)
"I can't imagine [the St. Charles paintings] bringing the kind of money that would be sustaining" to the institution, said Kristin Schwain, associate professor of art history at the University of Missouri. She studied the paintings for her 2008 book, Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age.
She finds the portrait of Msgr. Hugh T. Henry, known as The Translator (1902), the most interesting. Eakins depicts his learned friend, a writer and essayist, at a table, a portrait of Pope Leo XIII behind him, the pope's poems before him, books to the side. He presents Henry as a "translator" in every sense of the word, Schwain says; Henry mediates between the viewer and the rarefied world of intellectual Catholicism.
The seminary, however, does not own this work - it belongs to the American Catholic Historical Society, which Henry helped found.
Most of the St. Charles portraits were gestures of friendship: Eakins asked his subjects to sit for him, then gave them the finished work. He "painted such portraits out of love of his art and not because his sitters requested him to paint the portraits," Henry wrote Eakins scholar Lloyd Goodrich in 1930.
"Certainly that was true in my case, for he asked me to sit for him, offered me the completed work as a gift, and only at my suggestion presented it to the American Catholic Historical Society."
In all, Eakins painted 14 clerics. He was fascinated by the ideas, if not the faith, according to several scholars, and saw these men as great achievers.
"Eakins' portrait subjects were archbishops, provincials, delegates to the Vatican, eminent scholars, and founders of Catholic institutions like convents, hospitals, parish schools, and publishing companies," according to Schwain. "Their intense intellectual activity in the areas of theology, history, and literature marked the years between 1875 and 1925 as the 'Golden Age of Philadelphia Catholicism.' These same scholars pioneered the Catholic Church's growth in Philadelphia."
Michael Leja, professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania, said the sale of these paintings would be yet another example of works of art being viewed as commodities, like soybeans or real estate.
"You'd think, to the institutions in question, that history is not something that can be commodified," Leja said. "Works of art speak to an intelligence, a religious feeling, a seriousness, a concentration that are all very different from experience now.
"Something," he said, "gets lost."