A third-generation parishioner stood outside of what remains of the revered Holy Trinity Lithuanian Church in Wilkes-Barre and sighed.
Looking at what were mostly empty windowpanes, Mary Anne Revit recalled what she missed most about the ornate monument known as “the gem on the hill.”
“The windows in this church were just absolutely beautiful,” she said.
The two lofty church steeples that had dominated the skyline of the Heights section of the city have been torn down. All the cherished relics have been removed.
The demise of the once prominent Gothic architecture is the result of a widespread restructuring across the Diocese of Scranton that’s now winding down. It’s been a long process as dozens of shuttered churches have essentially been taken apart since then-Bishop Joseph F. Martino in February 2009 announced his final decisions about consolidating parishes in the 11-county diocese. In his messages, he emphasized that changing demographics, fewer financial resources and a dwindling number of priests had combined to force him to restructure the diocese.
The Diocese of Scranton owns the church buildings. When a church is closed, the pastor and his parish leadership teamevaluate the property and resources and consider options that can include using the property for another purpose, offering it for sale or taking down the building, according to diocese spokesman William Genello.
But before any of those options could come to fruition, the first thing the diocese had done was the salvage as many religious relics as possible.
Holy Trinity was one of at least 86 churches to close in the last six years in the Diocese of Scranton, 10 of which were in Wilkes-Barre, according to the list of consolidations provided by the diocese. Seven churches, including Holy Trinity, have been demolished in Luzerne County; 31 have been sold and eight are currently up for sale, according to figures provided by the diocese. Once Holy Trinity’s demolition is completed, the lot will also be put up for sale, Genello said.
Although many are sad Holy Trinity won’t survive, a lot of the relics inside their beloved gem will live on — albeit in different places, even other countries.
Revit remembers going to Easter procession as a child for sunrise Mass. She’d stand in an aisle at 5 a.m. trying to keep occupied to stay awake. The thing she most often turned her attention to was the 22-foot tall, 12-foot wide vibrant, hand-painted stained-glass window depicting the crucifixion of Jesus.
Now, at 64 years old, she attends St. Andrew Parish on Parrish Street, but it’s not the same for her. She misses Holy Trinity — the place her parents met; where she received all her sacraments except first communion; where she, her sister and mother fried the potato parings into pancakes in the 1960s for bazaars.
“It was a home. It was another home. Now, I just feel so lost,” Revit said.
Almost everything inside the church she and two other generations of her family had spent years admiring — such as the handcrafted marble altar and the manger assembled partially from the crate in which the altar had been shipped from Italy — are all gone. Some destroyed. Some in new homes. More than a dozen stained-glass windows, including Revit’s favorite one, are currently sitting in a clearinghouse in the south, for example.
The Diocese of Scranton’s media policy directs all inquiries through Genello and prevented interviews with officials who deal with property management and handle assets of closing churches. Frank Samanski, secretary of property and risk management for the diocese, in an email told Helen Yanulus, former Holy Trinity parishioner, that once a facility is no longer used as a worship site, the parish becomes responsible for arranging the removal of all sacred and religious items from the interior of the church.
Kenneth T. Pribanic owns Plymouth-based Church Furnishings Clearinghouse LLC, which sells articles from closed churches. He is not employed by any dioceses. He worked with the Diocese of Allentown in 2008 when it closed 47 churches, then was contracted by the Diocese of Scranton the following year to assist pastors with the disposition of items from churches being closed while consolidations were taking place.
“They didn’t want to move things themselves,” he said. “I was by various parishes to take things out. A lot of that stuff has been sold over the internet the last five years. Some of it is still waiting for buyers. But the plan was to get stuff out of the churches and get the churches sold.”
He said it’s up to the diocese how it wants to handle removing the assets of shuttered churches. Items could be sold outright to a dealer, or, sometimes dealers take things on consignment. Items could be given or sold to another parish. Sometimes church relics are even thrown away.
Pribanic also added that once the demolition company signs the contract with the diocese, whatever is left of the building and its contents become the contractor’s, so sometimes the contractor will sell items itself.
Although private buyers can purchase religious items from clearinghouses, relics most often end up back in some type of religious organization, whether it be a nearby parish or a mission group somewhere in Haiti. A lot of items go to churches being built in the south and southwest, he said. The churches are being erected using traditional designs so things like stained-glass windows are often retrofitted.
Holy Trinity closed in 2010 and immediately most of the items from the church were sold, Pribanic said.
The Rev. John S. Terry, pastor of Our Lady Hope, the parish in which Holy Trinity consolidated, said some items, such as angel statues from inside the church, went to his church so families from that parish could identify with those images they had become used to over the years.
There were many items to get rid of when Holy Trinity closed, the Rev. Terry said.
A Philadelphia-based group evaluated the stained-glass windows and any kind of artwork, then organized them in a catalog in hopes to spark the interest of potential buyers.
Some items went to parishes in San Francisco, according to the Rev. Terry. Some were given to Little Flower Manor in Wilkes-Barre, which is a home owned by the Diocese of Scranton. The pews were sold to a church in Forest City in Susquehanna County. He said he tried to find a home for the pipe organ, but no one would take it due to the cost of removal and restoration.
“All these things were sent to places where they would be treated with respect. It’s not like they were just thrown out, just get rid of them,” he said.
The Rev. Terry wouldn’t disclose the amount of money made from selling these items, but said, “Let’s put it this way, it wasn’t as much as you’d think,” adding that most went to paying for building maintenance and utilities.
Prices of religious relics, however, vary widely from dealers, ranging from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Olde Good Things, for example, an antique dealer based in Scranton, acquired a pair of marble angel statues that are more than 5 feet tall, which used to be perched on top of Holy Trinity. Although the Rev. Terry described the angels as “falling apart,” a call to Olde Good Things revealed an asking price of $35,000 for the pair.
Pribanic estimated that there are about a half dozen companies specializing in his line of work, which he said likely amounts to a multi-million dollar business, and that doesn’t include those scattered across the. He also added the biggest problem people have with this industry is the lack oversight and regulation.
Rick Lair, president of King Richard’s Liturgical Design and Contracting, based in Atlanta, Georgia, said dioceses that have been “burned” by independent dealers rarely seek services outside the few professionals in the business, boasting the Archdiocese of Philadelphia deals only with his company.
He said the items his company acquires most often end up back in the hands of another religious organization. However, because only a handful of companies specialize in buying and selling religious relics and often money can be an issue when it’s time to get rid of items, they can end up in the hands of people who are less reputable, he said, ridiculing those who use eBay to sell religious items.
“We don’t believe this stuff should end up in nightclubs, bars, restaurants and strip clubs,” Lair said. “People that buy them off the think it’s cool to put a Jesus window in the lobby of a strip club.”
He said Holy Trinity was one of about 25 other churches in the Diocese of Scranton from which King Richards salvaged relics. The company mainly handles windows and altars, while parishes often try to find homes for smaller items. His company has between 14 and 16 hand-painted stained-glass windows from Holy Trinity that were made in the 1930s or 1940s. The windows are sold only in sets. A pair of windows, including the one depicting Jesus’ crucifixion, is listed on the company’s website. A call revealed the price for the set is $70,000.
The windows coming out of these churches are often large and Lair said it takes a company with the skills, crews and equipment to remove them, not a one-man shop.
He said along with the stained-glass windows, his company removed the marble altar, which is now at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in David City, Nebraska.
These items for many years have been a part of Holy Trinity’s congregation, which dates back to 1893. The “gem on the hill” itself was built in 1911. The interior was ornately decorated with rich historical items, like the Italian marble altar and the canvas art of Biblical scenes painted in New York that were on the walls and vaulted ceilings. The organ’s first home was the Paramount Theater, which is now the Kirby Center, in downtown Wilkes-Barre.
Like Revit, a number of the parishioners have a long line of family members who attended Holy Trinity and have grown attached to the items inside as well as to the building itself.
Anita Davis, 61, of Plains Township, who is a third generation parishioner of Holy Trinity, had spent a lot of time there. Before winter weather delayed Stell Enterprises construction company and subcontractor Hadley Construction Inc. from completely razing Holy Trinity, Davis used to drive past East South and South Meade streets just to see the building.
“I would ride by and feel better just seeing it there, even though it was closed,” she said, noting she has a brick and piece of molding at her home for keepsakes.
The Rev. Thomas Looney, C.S.C, director of the King’s Office of Campus Ministry, said a church building — its architecture, stained glass and its entire ambiance — is a place through which God had spoken to some parishioners.
“It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, it’s life-giving for people,” he said. “So to leave, that’s very tough, and it’s hard for them to say, ‘I can experience God’s love and mercy and presence as deeply in another place.’ People get attached to the place that they call home — it’s family — so it’s a tough dynamic for people.”
Historical value has been a big issue in the Wyoming Valley because of all the immigrant groups, the Rev. Terry said. When an historical ethnic church like Holy Trinity is closed, there’s great hurt, he said, but the reality is that the area’s demographics have changed rapidly.
The Rev. Terry emphasized the church is not the building. It’s the people, he said, noting many parishioners have acclimated to their new churches since the consolidations.
“The beauty depends on how beautiful your people are, how cordial they are, how welcoming they are, how they treat each other,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the church. But we get so fixated on buildings because of history.”
Sales and demolitions of closed churches in Luzerne County since 2009 consolidation:
31 churches sold
8 currently for sale
7 (including Holy Trinity) demolished. Four of those vacant lots have been sold and the remaining three are currently for sale.
Catholic population of actively practicing parishioners in the Diocese of Scranton:
2000 total catholic population: 343,820
2013 total catholic population: 278,904
Source: Diocese of Scranton