When Churches Close
By Joseph Pronechan
ALPHARETTA, Ga. — When some churches were closed and their interiors sold, confessionals with donor plaques still on them turned up as telephone booths in an eatery. Donors’ relatives were understandably upset.
While objects from dismantled churches still appear on eBay and at antique dealers to some degree, most fine religious art, architecture and sacred objects today are reclaimed and reused for original purposes, thanks to new, conscientious businesses, new diocesan policies and religious communities dedicated to the restoration of the sacred.
“There aren’t a whole lot of these horror stories anymore,” said Rick Lair, owner of King Richards Religious Artifacts in Alpharetta, Ga.
Several dioceses now have tight standards and controls to prevent misuse and assure the irreplaceable treasure continue for sacred purposes, according to Lair. With King Richards specializing in reclaiming and restoring these sacred treasures, Lair also makes sure the beautiful altars, statuary, stained glass, Statins of the Cross, and artwork are relocated to other churches, convents, school and retreat chapels, and the occasional private home chapel.
Most items go to renovation projects, he said, such as a three-story high marble altar and reredos from buffalo, N.Y., that went to a new church in Littleton, Colo.
Lair finds that those calling for antique sacred objects and ornamentation consistently want to restore a church to its original majesty.”We’re making our churches look like what they used to,” he said.
Catholic scholar, author and church architect Steven Schloeder of Liturgical Environs in Phoenix pointed out there never was a call to whitewash, remove or destroy beautiful stained glass, altar rails, and other such objects.
“There’s a moral obligation to reclaim,” he said. “Somebody has given the church a gift to be used for the edification of the faithful and service of the liturgy or for the devotional life of the church. That may have happened 100 years ago, and that is a gift in perpetuity.”
“When parishes do close,” he said, “the church needs to be a good steward of that and make sure the (objects) are maintained in the service of the Catholic Church.”
As Sacred Heart Church in Peoria, Ill., approached its 100th anniversary needing major work, the parish looked for reclaimed sacred objects.
“One of our goals was to make it look like we never did anything,” said Francisvan Father Larry Zurich, the pastor. Through Lair, with whom he worked before, Father Zureck got beautiful antique marble altars with a reredos from a Pennsylvania church.
Because finding the right size antique stained glass to replace the nondescript 1960s’ modern windows proved impossible, Father Zurich enlisted Murals by Jericho, known for fine art religious paintings and decorating, to fill walls with depictions of 27 stained and blesseds of the Americas.
“A lot of younger priests, especially renovating older churches, want to bring back the traditions or are building more traditional-looking Catholic churches,” said Andrew Hatterman, Murals by Jericho’s artist/co-owner. Magnificent antique stained glass windows and marble altars and reredos “can easily be used in a brand new church and look like they belong there,” said Lair.
Take the windows Schloeder found for St. Paul’s in Pensacola, Fla., dedicated in 2008. The 100-year-old German windows, with their old masters’-like scenes from the life of Christ, were reclaimed from three different churches. Schloeder supplemented them with two windows commissioned from a contemporary studio. The architect compares these approaches to “the Gospel passage where the wise steward brings both the old and the new from the storehouse.”
When it comes to careful reuse of sacred objects form closed churches, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia runs a model program. Msgr. Louis D’Addezio. “The cardinal did not want anything of Catholic identity to be found in any antique shops, private homes, businesses. We do not sell anything to a private individual for private use. We conduct no business with private individuals.”
When a parish closes, Msgr. D’Addezio’s office takes all Catholic identity out of the building – altars, reredos, stations, statues, stained glass and more. Archdiocesan priests are invited to see if they want anything for their parishes.
Remarkable results take place with new archdiocesan edifices. St. Monica Church in Berwyn took stained glass, wood reredos, and silver appointments from Corpus Christi Church in North Philadelphia. The interior of St. Ladislaus in Philadelphia now graces the new St. Helena in Center Square.
When sacred items go outside the archdiocese – stained glass, for example, has gone around the country – the procedure is strict: The office of special projects/closures deals only with the churches asking for the sacred objects for us in their renovation or construction.
If lair matches such diocese with churches, there is a 10% broker’s fee, plus removal and installation fees. His company buys outright when it can, which is 90% of the time.
Reverence to tradition is essential, explained Msgr. D’Addezio. “These things were given with blood, sweat and tears and deserve to be used for the intention given. People are grateful and at peace when they see it is stilled used for the intention their grandparents gave it for.”
As for Philadelphia’s edifices themselves, those in bad disrepair were torn down. Most others were bought by non-Catholic congregations. “We have a restricted use on the resale,” said Msgr. D’Addezio. “People can’t use them for whatever they want.”
Restoring the Liturgy
Reuse cuts two ways. “In restoring something you’re not only just reclaiming the past, buy building for the future,” explained Father C. Frank Phillips, of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, an order dedicated to the restoration of the sacred. He is pastor of St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.
In a model way, Father Phillips has reclaimed a number of the parish’s sacred objects, like the tarnished chalice in seven pieces he found on this arrival. It was a gift from parishioner in the late 19th century to a priest known as the Cure of Cantius who heard confessions for hours on end and found homes for immigrants.
Father Phillips combines reclaiming/restoring with a unique addition. He obtains donations of gold, silver, broken jewelry and jewels to make into new sacred objects such as the Jubilee Year crown for Mary that John Paul II blessed before her coronation in the parish, and he commissioned a millennium chalice and monstrance. The pastor collects old vestments and linens to make a new vestment or turn into corporals and purificators.
Restoring and reclaiming sacred art and objects and blending new works seamlessly with them is not an end in itself. Father Phillips explained the ultimate purpose that fits all situations.
“The whole purpose of restoring these works of art is to draw the faithful into a restoration of the faith,” he said. Importantly, it leads to reintroducing the beauty of the liturgy, the full splendor or the Roman rite. At St. John’s, that includes the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Mass.
Sacred objects salvaged, reclaimed, restored, and reused properly, instead of ending up in secular venues like restaurants, leads to this greater glory of God.