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There's a three-piece stainless steel geometric sculpture by the Russian-born Israeli Kosso Eloul in the little park that buffers St. Michael's College from the high-rise towers marching westward from Bay Street toward the University of Toronto. One long vertical section tilts against another with a horizontal bar balanced atop the precarious trinity.

"What do you think of it?" Father Daniel Donovan, proud donor of the work, casually asked the college's parking attendant one day last summer.

"It looks like somebody rushing to church," was the prompt retort.

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Clearly charmed by this saucy insight into the thematic heart of the art collection he has amassed and donated to the college over the past two decades, Donovan laughed with a kind of spiritual glee as he related the anecdote earlier this week.

Buying art is all about choices. The first decision, no matter how spontaneous, casts a weighty influence on all subsequent purchases -- either pro or con -- until one day you look around at your walls and realize that you are addicted to the colour blue or abstract expressionism or even farm animals.

Donovan bought two woodcuts in Germany back in 1967, thinking of them as souvenirs of the years he had spent studying for a doctorate in theology in Rome and at the University of Munster. Now he knows that those two works by Jakob Steinhardt, a German Jew who escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to Palestine in the 1930s, were the beginnings of a very unusual collection centred on the concept of spirituality that now numbers more than 100 works.

Eight important pieces from the Donovan collection, including works by Betty Goodwin, Barbara Steinman, John Brown and Harold Klunder are part of an exhibition called The Private Eye at the McMichael Gallery in Kleinberg, Ont., which opened July 1 and continues until Nov. 14. Donovan is one of 14 collectors (four of whom have insisted on anonymity) who have lent works to the gallery in an effort to explain the passion and the compulsion that leads some people to spend their disposable income on art rather than fast cars or summer homes or whatever else they might fancy.

Eloul's Zen West was the first piece Donovan bought with his Canadian alma mater in mind. That spontaneous gesture back in 1980 turned him from an art lover into a collector and also pricked his homegrown sensibilities. Why, he wondered, was he spending so much time looking at European and American art when he knew so little about the contemporary scene in Toronto? And so he embarked on a routine that continues to this day: spending Saturday afternoons visiting the city's commercial galleries and immersing himself in the wider artistic community.

A priest who is also an art patron was commonplace back in the lavish days of the Medicis and the Borgias, but it does seem a little suspect in this era of religious and fiscal accountability. Not necessarily so, explained Donovan in a conversation in his art-studded office in Odette Hall at the college.

At 67, he is quiet spoken with short wispy white hair and dressed in lightweight grey trousers and a wine red open-necked shirt, Donovan, who still teaches theology and culture full time at St. Michael's, says his life has three dimensions: priest, academic and art collector. "When I preach, I am a theologian who collects art, when I collect art, I am an academic who is a priest who goes to art galleries, and when I teach I am an collector who knows something about contemporary Canadian art. It all interrelates."

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Music, not art, was a big part of Donovan's home life growing up in a lower middle class Catholic family in Toronto. His mother, whose family came from France in the 17th century, was a good pianist who played the organ in church, and his Irish-born father was a policeman who left the hard realities of his job at the station when he came home after his shift.

It was Gerald Phelan, a diocesan priest at St. Michael's, who steered Donovan in the direction of both his vocation and his passion in the 1950s. "He was a marvellous teacher," Donovan says, his face lighting up at the memory. Half a century later, Donovan can still remember Phelan's classes in the philosophy of art on Tuesday and Thursdays from 4 until 5 "in a classroom in which I still teach" as the high point of his undergraduate career.

"I loved the course and I loved the man. He was a sophisticated, approachable priest with a wonderful appreciation of art. I have no doubt that his example, his enthusiasm and his ability had an impact on me that influences the way I developed."

The gentle patience with which Donovan listens and the articulate passion he conveys as we tour his collection are pretty good indicators of his prowess as a teacher. What isn't so clear is how, as a priest, he reconciles spending money on art when people are starving and homeless?

There are basically two kinds of priests, "not the good and the bad," he jokes, without outwardly bristling at the impertinence of my question. There are the ones who belong to religious orders, such as Dominicans, Jesuits and Franciscans and those, like him, who are diocesan priests.

Sometimes called secular priests, diocesans commit their lives to serving the people of a diocese, or church administrative region, and generally work in parishes, schools or other Catholic institutions as assigned by the bishop of their diocese. All priests take oaths of celibacy and obedience, but only the ones in religious orders take vows of poverty and live in monasteries or seminaries.

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He lives frugally in the college where he has earned a teaching salary since he went on staff in 1971. Early on in his career, he identified teaching at St. Michael's as his life and he decided, perhaps unconsciously at first, that everything he had would go back to the college and its students. "And so I have donated time, cash and above all art."

Mostly his art hangs in Odette Hall, an adjunct to the parish church of St. Basil's. Built in the 1850s, it is the oldest building in continuous use at the university. The building was extensively renovated in the mid-1990s and opened again in 1996 to coincide with the installation of Donovan's collection. Since then, Donovan has toured about 4,000 people through the collection, introducing many of them not only to contemporary Canadian art but to a contemplative aspect of it that has escaped the notice even of professionals working in the field.

The first Canadian piece Donovan bought was a tabernacle made by Ted Rettig. Both men were part of a small group who met on Sunday evenings in the sixties to celebrate the Eucharist at York University where Rettig was a student. As part of his thesis project, Rettig produced a liturgical set. Years later, Donovan bought the tabernacle, a cube of limestone, hollowed out like a cave, with simple markings on the outer walls and a bronze door that reveals a Celtic cross on the inside wall. The piece, which is part of the McMichael exhibition, is not overtly Catholic. Rather, it encompasses a range of symbolic meanings -- from a home to a womb -- about providing shelter to a precious and sacred entity.

What does his taste say about him as an aesthete or a human being? Looking at Donovan's collection of prints, sculptures, photographs and paintings, the answer seems clear: The man who chose these works is on a serious quest for spiritual meaning in life and in art. Hope permeates the collection even in the several works that deal directly with the Holocaust, a time when many Jews believed God had died.

You can see this in the Steinman photograph of the interior of a concentration camp in which the cell doors, still baring their locks, are opened and water is washing the floor clean of its horrific memories. And you can see hope in the "souvenir" woodcuts Donovan brought back from Germany. One depicts Job at the end of his biblical rant still questioning why the innocent have to suffer, but still trusting in God; the other shows the prophet Habakkuk rising above the darkness and chaos that has surrounded the people and demanding: "How long O Lord, how long?"

Hope is also the message in a recent Donovan acquisition of a Larry Towell photograph taken at ground zero in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A clergyman, wearing a biblical collar and a breathing mask, is standing like a beacon in the midst of the devastation while rescue workers search through the rubble. Off to one side a traffic light that has been draped with cloth looks like a modern day crucifixion.

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The Towell piece is one of 11 photographic works that Donovan has installed along a teaching corridor in nearby Carr Hall. One of the bonuses of living and working in a university is that there are seemingly endless walls on which Donovan can hang his collection. And every year a new audience of students arrives to partake of the gifts that Donovan continues to provide. It makes for a symbiotic relationship.

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