As City Parishes Close, Their Artifacts Find New Life in the Suburbs
By Michael Alison Chandler
For the first 20 years of his life, The Rev. William P. Saunders recited the Lord’s Prayer in a church intended to be a Catholic school gymnasium. Although surrounded by cold, cinder-block walls, he found solace in the hand-carved crucifix and statues of Mary and Saint Joseph. When he became a priest, he vowed that if he ever built a church, it would be grand – rimmed with Gothic arches and filled with breathtaking works of art. In January, the 49-year-old past unlocked the heavy doors for the dedication of Northern Virginia’s newest Catholic church. Outside, it’s a contemporary building, Gothic styled with galvanized aluminum spires rising above rows upon rows of Potomac Falls’ tan and brick townhouses.
Inside, century-old stained-glass windows project kaleidoscopes of gold and crimson on African ribbon-stripe mahogany pews, an ornately carved, white marble altar crowns the sanctuary and pristine marble angels offer holy water to all who enter.
To design Our Lady of Hope, Saunders enlisted help from architects, one of whom is his brother, a Springfield-based designer of modern schools and sports facilities. To furnish it, he combed the remnants of last century’s churches.
In the past 20 years, hundreds of America’s first-generation Catholic churches have closed because of dwindling attendance and a shrinking number of pastors. The European ethnic communities that erected proud cathedrals to mark their arrival in the New World moved to the suburbs. Decades later, the things they left behind – their rose windows and well-worn kneelers – are forming a second wave of suburbanization, finding new homes in the churches of their descendants.
“While people can move, buildings really can’t, so there are tons of gorgeous buildings in places that are pretty much vacant,” said Mary Gautier, senior researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Until the Vatican can find “a sky hook to move the churches intact,” she said, parishioners have to settle for salvaging them in “bits and pieces.”
In the past three years, the Boston area has closed 60 parishes in which low attendance at mass could not justify high insurance or heating costs. The St. Louis area has lost more than 20 parishes, as have the vanishing farm towns of North Dakota. Catholics in aging neighborhoods are learning to extract huge marble altars and remove stained-glass windows -- pane by pane – and send them to subdivisions in the Sunbelt.
Increasingly, religious works are finding their way to Northern Virginia, where 100,00 Catholics have moved since 1995 in search of jobs, said Soren Johnson, spokesman for the Arlington Diocese.
Our Lady of Hope formed as a parish in 2000 with 300 families meeting for mass in a high school gym. When the new church opened this winter, it became home to 1,300 families.
On a recent weekday morning, construction workers applied finishing touches to the sanctuary, installed wooden screens in the confessional rooms and sanded the edges of white marble panels for a tall back altar that once adorned a convent outside Buffalo before the aging sisters downsized to a smaller facility with an infirmary.
Saunders, a Springfield native, circled the airy room, delighting in the details of the art he had spent years acquiring. He noticed the veins in Christ’s arms in a window above the choir loft that had been salvaged from a German parish in Elmyra, N.Y., and he stopped in front of a statue of Saint Joseph with the baby Jesus, taken from an earthquake-damaged building in San Francisco, admiring each hand-crafted toenail.
“The person who made this has a great love,” Saunders said. “They don’t make churches like this anymore,”
Early Catholic immigrants built Baroque or Gothic churches to mirror the ones they in Europe. Amid their crowded, working-class tenements, they incorporated the finest artwork so that on Sundays they could leave the factories behind and spend a few hours in heaven, Saunders said.
In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council, initiated by Pope John XXIII to modernize the church, decided that excessive decoration could be distracting. This ruling, along with contemporary trends toward spare and energy-efficient design, led to experiments with churches in the round or plain, box-life buildings.
Many Catholics who grew up in “churchnasiums” are now pushing back, longing for the art and ambience of their ancestors.
Saunders says the Vatican’s counsel has been misinterpreted: “We’re people of senses. We’re body and soul. Devotional objects, life stained glass and statues, help us focus our spirituality.”
With the resurgence of more traditional architecture, a growing number of businesses have emerged with a ready supply of secondhand art and furnishings.
The Boston-based Organ Clearing house, for instance, sells and installs pipe organs that “already know the hymns: for tens of thousands of dollars. And King Richard’s Religious Artifacts, which nets up to $3 million a year, advertises a full inventory of pulpits and pews on its Website, along with a line of “Altar Ware,” including an antique traveling chalice with metal case, priced at $100.
Sound peddlers hawk tabernacles on eBay to the highest bidder; other market themselves as specialists in finding sacred destinations for sacred art – promising churches that their statues won’t wind up in antique shop windows or restaurant lobbies.
For many Catholics, it’s painful to lose the church in which they were married or their parents were baptized, not to mention the objects inside, many imbued with more than sentimental meaning.
In the sacrament of the Eucharist, wind and bread are turned into the blood and body of Christ on an altar, and many Catholics would rather not see it used as a dining room table, said Monsignor Brian Ferme, dean of the school of canon law at Catholic University.
Canon law specifies that items used in religious ceremony must be deconsecrated if put to secular use, and anything with potential historical or artistic value should be cleared with the Holy See, he said.
But some dioceses have gone further, establishing guidelines to keep artwork within the diocese or another Catholic church. Many parishes are willing to give their art away or charge only a nominal fee if it stays within the faith.
Saunders said Our Lady of Hope spent $200,000 on stained-glass windows that were appraised at $2 million. The hand-carved marble altar from the Philadelphia Archdiocese cost $500, but he estimated that a new one like it would have been a thousand times more expensive.Many of the marble statues were free.
For help shopping, Saunders contracted with a Phoenix-based dealer who found him a series of Life of Christ windows in Upstate New York, and Sacred Spaces Liturgical Design, a company with offices in Alexandria, Italy and Poland, which found his Stations of the Cross at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem.
The archdiocese of New York was unwilling to sell them, but Saunders was so moved by the vivid scenes of Christ carrying his cross to Calgary that the company got permission to recast them – a job requiring five people, including a Texas-based artist who traveled to New York in the middle of the winter to make the molds, pitching two plastic tents with electric heaters in the shuttered church. The cost: $60,000.
The original stations remain in New York and probably will be placed in a church in that area, said archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling. Several statues from St. Tomas have been moved to other churches in Harlem, where former parishioners can visit the, a tactic some diocese use to keep their members close to cherished works.
Occasionally, parishes update their members on farther-flung destinations so that someone making a trip to an area, be it Florida or Las Vegas, can stop in and offer a prayer to their favorite statue of the Blessed Mother or Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things.
And for a few families, the works have followed them across generations and state lines. When the church bells ring at the end of Sunday mass at Our Lady of Hope, parishioner Nicholas Macioce thinks of his father, who heard those very chimes the day he was baptized at Our Lady Help of Christians in Pittsburgh.
The son of Italian immigrants, Macioce’s dad attended all-Latin services in the Italian neighborhood until the first grade, when his family moved outside the city lines.
For Macioce, the bells are more than beautiful. They’re a connection to his father and, he says, “a connection to the history of the church.”