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A Jack Kerouac museum is on the road to reality in Lowell

St. Jean Baptiste Church in Lowell. (Courtesy Jack Kerouac Estate)
St. Jean Baptiste Church in Lowell. (Courtesy Jack Kerouac Estate)

The church in Lowell, Massachusetts where beat writer Jack Kerouac's funeral was held — and where he was briefly an altar boy — is on the road to becoming the first permanent home for his legacy.

The iconic author's estate announced Tuesday that it's been pursuing the concept of a Kerouac museum and performance center in Lowell for years. Now it's moving ahead and has formed the Jack Kerouac Foundation to secure funding.

In this 1967 file photo, author Jack Kerouac is shown in Lowell, Mass. (Stanley Twardowicz/AP File Photo)
In this 1967 file photo, author Jack Kerouac is shown in Lowell, Mass. (Stanley Twardowicz/AP File Photo)

Jim Sampas, literary executor of the estate, elaborated on the project's importance. He pointed to the long list of cultural figures — including Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Barack Obama — who've praised Kerouac for his influence on them. His wild, free-form 1957 novel, “On the Road,” captured the counterculture's rise and ethos in the aftermath of World War II America. After Kerouac struggled to get the book published, it went on to become a trailblazing, literary classic.

“Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Gonzo Journalism,’ the 'New Journalism' work of Joan Didion, Tom Wolf, Norman Mailer, surely was influenced by Kerouac’s true-to-life, spontaneous prose,” Sampas said. “And while there have been monuments built to Kerouac, there is no museum or performance center to celebrate this singular author’s artistry. The brilliant team assembled here is looking to change that in creating a space that touches on Kerouac’s many talents."

Lowell is the obvious place for a space that celebrates Kerouac. His connection to his working class hometown ran deep. He was born there in 1922, and his body was laid to rest in Lowell after the 1969 funeral services at St. Jean Baptiste Church. Having the museum open in that building is meaningful, Sampas said, because it played an important role not only in Kerouac's life, but also in his writing.

“A great many scenes in one of Kerouac’s most personal novels, 'Visions of Gerard' — about his older brother who died at nine, takes place under this roof,” Sampas explained. “His funeral service with some of oldest and dearest friends — Allen Ginsberg and John Clellon Holmes among them — happened here. Catholicism is embedded in Kerouac’s work, and truthfully this just feels right.”

The estate's dream for a Kerouac museum is moving toward reality, in partnership with the Acre Coalition To Improve Our Neighborhood (ACTION). That organization's president, Dave Ouellette, suggested the cathedral as a potential location.

St. Jean Baptiste Church in Lowell. (Courtesy Jack Kerouac Estate)
St. Jean Baptiste Church in Lowell. (Courtesy Jack Kerouac Estate)

“Memorializing Jack in the place his brother Gerard was baptized, and where he formed a deep bond with the priest who conducted his funeral — Father Spike Morissette — would be incredibly appropriate,” Ouellette said in a statement announcing the foundation. He added that renovating the building would contribute to the neighborhood and the City of Lowell. The church is currently owned by TMI Property Management & Development.

When asked about the new museum and performance center's potential look and vibe, Sampas replied, “We envision this as a visually stimulating place. In the short few hours we’ve made this announcement, we’ve had offers coming in, both in terms of major designers and collectors, on the work that could be displayed. And we’re keeping very open to all.”

He added the public programming will present works that illustrate how different genres — from film to music to poetry and painting — have channeled the spirit of Kerouac's writing.

“The key ingredient to the work is the unpretentious, unstructured honesty of the spontaneous prose method he uses — the jazz inspired musicality of it — that’s what draws you in and keeps you hooked,” Sampas explained. “As William S. Burroughs once said, 'Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levis to both sexes. Woodstock rises from his pages.' Seeing a community built upon that within this museum, that’s what inspires me most.”

Related:

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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