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New life is found for Catholic church artifacts

Monday, December 5, 2011

As a seminarian, the Rev. Joseph McCaffrey knelt before a tabernacle in the chapel at Mercy Hospital, where his mother was being treated for a brain tumor, and prayed for her recovery.

Later, when he was named pastor of Ss. John and Paul Church in Marshall, he noticed that same tabernacle – an ornamental cabinet used to store the Blessed Sacrament – as his new church.

And when it came time to build a new Sts. John and Paul Church building, he “knew that was going to be in there.”

The practice of reusing religious items is a common one among Catholics. The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has two warehouses – one an old church that house aging, unused religious articles and statuary. The buying and selling of sacred items, called simony, is forbidden by the First Commandment, the Catholic Church says.

“We’ve found some creative ways to reuse things,” said former Pittsburgh priest Daniel Dinardo, now a cardinal who heads the archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. In the past two decades, the number of Catholics in the archdiocese doubled to 1.4 million. DiNardo, who arrived there in 2004, has dedicated 11 new church buildings.

As Western Pennsylvania’s population declines, so have the number of Catholics, from 815,719 in 2004 to 673,201 in 2008, the latest year for which figures are available.

The Pittsburgh Diocese has closed 17 parishes and established seven new ones over the past decade. Unused items from those churches are stored in hopes that other churches will use them.

“We have moved quite a bit of items, some to new churches – Sts. John and Paul, St. Francis of Assisi in Finleyville and St. Joseph in O’Hara,” said Joseph M. Kubiak, facilities coordinator/inspector, who maintains the inventory for the Pittsburgh’ diocese’s property planning department.

One diocesan warehouse holds smaller items, such as chalices and candles; the other contains larger items such as pews, altars and statues. One wall holds nothing but candlesticks and chalices. Some of the inventory is damaged, such as a statue of Jesus missing its hands.

“It’s reflected in the law of the church… We believe sacred items can’t be sold” said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, who helped write a new policy for the diocese after the former St. John the Baptist Church in Lawrenceville was sold with all the religious items still inside. It became The Church Brew Works, a use of space that horrified some Catholics.

Some religious items from Pittsburgh have gone to the Virgin Island and churches in the West Indies. Bishops there had come here looking for windows and pews. Artifacts from Pittsburgh also have been sent to churches in Europe and a cathedral in Croatia, officials said.

Despite the prohibition on sales, though, religious items from across the country are available for sale, experts said.

“The market is absolutely flooded with product right now,” said Rick Lair, one of the owners of King Richard’s Religious Artifacts in Alpharetta, Ga. “You have 300 to 400 Catholic churches closing each year…supply far exceeds demand.”

In the past, many dioceses weren’t choosy about where their unwanted artifacts went.

“They just got rid of it,” Lair said. “When 33 churches on the south side of Chicago closed in the 1990s, lots of stuff wound up in nightclubs.”

The basic rule for the disposition of sacred items is to burn them or to bury them, said the Rev. James R. Gretz, director of the Department for Worship at the Pittsburgh Diocese.

“If large religious items are in disrepair, burial is the preferred method of disposal,” he said. “Smaller items, such as books, can be burned and their ashes buried in a cemetery.”