Closed parishes’ sacred goods put to use at other churchesItems help restore old churches, bring sense of traditional to modern buildingsBy Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller - OSV Newsweekly, 7/29/2012
In 2008, the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., merged and consolidated 151 parishes into 104 and moved everything from the 47 closed churches into a warehouse. The following year, it began selling pews, kneelers, altars, ambos, vestments, monstrances, candleholders, stained-glass windows and more to other parishes.
In the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, sacramentals and other religious artifacts from closed churches are for sale at church-inventory.com through Henninger’s, a church supplier in Brook Park, Ohio.
Like many dioceses across the country, Allentown and Cleveland are liquidating not only the property and buildings of closed churches, but also the contents. Selling bookcases and lamps are one thing, but selling sacred objects is restricted to reuse in parishes, chapels, religious communities, Catholic schools and hospitals or other diocesan-approved sites.
St. Felix obtained the altar for its main chapel from the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. Photo by Paul SiegfriedSome dioceses, such as Allentown, are handling the sales themselves, except for stained-glass windows, which are being marketed by Beyer Studio in Philadelphia. Cleveland, which closed 50 churches in 2009-2010 (12 are reopening) contracts with a middle man, and some churches sell to businesses that warehouse the religious goods.
“Nothing can be sold for use in any private way,” said Matthew Kerr, director of communications for the Allentown diocese.
Statues, Stations of the Cross, altars and monstrances are the most sought from their inventory, and successor parishes usually have first choice. That, Kerr said, is a comfort to parishioners.
Phil Haas, archivist for the Cleveland Diocese, agreed. “Anything, like a monstrance, sacred vessels or even furniture that had significance to the closed parish — like a statue of a saint from a nationality parish — can make it more welcoming at the new site,” he said.
Neighboring parishes are usually second in line for acquiring artifacts from closed churches, then other diocesan churches, then churches and other approved destinations elsewhere.
“A lot of it went down South, where a lot of building is going on,” Haas said. “And some of the chalices and sacred items were sent to our archives.”
Restoring older parishes
Starting From Scratch When the Capuchin Franciscan Friars moved out of St. Felix Friary in Huntington, Ind., in 1978, they sold the property to the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, who put it up for sale in 2009.
Local businessman John Tippmann purchased the 30-acre site because he wanted the church and buildings, built in 1928, returned to its Catholic roots.
The Mary Cross-Tippmann Foundation put $2 million into a restoration at a time when he didn’t even know what was going to become of it.
Then the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, of Ann Arbor, Mich., expressed interest in moving 20 of their sisters to what’s now St. Felix Catholic Center.
In March, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend dedicated St. Felix Oratory, and many of the sisters will arrive later this summer.
“It’s amazing that someone would buy this building and put so much money into it with no end game in site,” said Joe Wharton, general manager of Tippmann Properties, who oversaw the restoration. “It was a leap of faith.”
Even more amazing, he added, was that they found everything they needed in the Diocese of Allentown, Pa.
“When we heard that they had closed numerous churches and had a warehouse of artifacts, we went out, and we hit a home run,” he said. “The building had no Catholic sacramentals at all and [the sanctuary] was just an empty room. So we went out with a long list and they had absolutely everything we needed.”
In September 2011, moving trucks brought back everything to furnish a church and three chapels, including pews, candlesticks, vestments, Stations of the Cross and what Wharton called “the crowning jewels” of the restoration — “a beautiful tabernacle” that’s more than 100 years old and an altar that has the setting of the Last Supper.
“What the Allentown diocese has done with these sacramentals and artifacts is exceptional,” he said. “They are very specific about offering them only to parishes and diocese-approved organizations, and that’s the way it should be. I commend them for that.”
The sisters will occupy half of the building that will be separated from the retreat center. Sometimes churches are being refurnished after fires, floods or tornadoes. Most buyers, though, are transforming newer sanctuaries into something more traditional, or back to how it was before modernization.
That was the case at Holy Trinity Church in Brainard, Neb., and St. John the Baptist Church in Wagner, S.D., which both purchased altars from Fynders Keepers Brokerage LLP, in Shawnee Mission, Kan.
Brendan Hamtil, who started the business with $150 and the inspiration of helping a priest find an antique altar 12 years ago, doesn’t keep a warehouse, but links buyers and sellers.
“Half are people building churches and the other half are restoring their churches to pre-Vatican II configuration,” he said. “There are priests who are assigned to modern churches and want to give a sense of tradition, so they buy antique pieces that gives them a sense of historical preservation.”
Years ago, the original altar and architecture of St. John the Baptist Church was removed, leaving it “plain and bare,” Father Richard Baumberger said. The parish purchased an ornate white altar that had been in St. Patrick’s Church in Fond du Lac, Wis.
“Our church is 101 years old, and it looks like it was made to fit,” he said. “It’s so perfect and it fills up the sanctuary. It just enhanced our church immensely and makes it look more like a holy place.”
Decorative painting and additional statues completed the restoration.
Father Matthew Eickhoff wanted a gothic-style altar for Holy Trinity Church, and Hamtil found one at St. Stanislaus Church in Berlin, Wis. The acquisition had a couple of other perks.
“I had six months to get ready for our centennial celebration in 2009, and it would have taken 18 months to have a high altar custom built,” Father Eickhoff said. “And we paid $25,000 for the one from Fynders Keepers and put another $25,000 into it. A reproduction would have cost $300,000, so it was a huge savings.”
Holy Trinity, like many old churches, had been stripped of its original grand architecture. Many, he said, were thrilled to see it now looking more like the church they grew up in or were married in. The restoration also included a matching sacramental altar built by a parishioner, eight original statues and four others purchased through Hamtil.
“It looks like every aspect of the décor was created together, but it wasn’t,” Father Eickhoff said. “We just made it look that way.”
Interest in traditional
The high altars at Holy Trinity Church in Brainard, Neb., came from St. Stanislaus Church in Berlin, Wis. Courtesy of Holy Trinity ChurchHigh altars and matching side altars are most in demand at King Richard’s Religious Antiques, which has two warehouses in Atlanta, Ga. Stained-glass windows are the next big item.
“If people can find something that fits the needs of the parish and everybody agrees on, they’re going to save a lot of money,” salesman Joseph Copp said. “A nice [used] marble altar averages $35,000, and new, it would be from $400,000 to $500,000.”
Cost isn’t the only incentive to purchasing antiques. In the aftermath of modernization, there’s a trend to return to tradition.
“There’s a generation of new priests coming up and parishioners who are seeing the value of what the church had in the past,” Copp said. “There’s more and more interest now in traditional things.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
Isabel's St. Mary's restored to its (mostly) original 1919 beauty COURTESY OF RAPID CITY JOURNAL June 08, 2013 4:00 am • Mary Garrigan Journal staff
At a time when many small country churches in South Dakota have closed their doors for lack of a viable congregation, or the cash to maintain one, St. Mary's Catholic Church in Isabel is an anomaly.
"It's an energetic community up there," said the Rev. Brian Christensen, pastor of the small parish that recently renovated its historic 1919 church.
With out-of-pocket expenses of $90,000 and lots of sweat equity from its 40-plus ranch families, most of whom have young children, St. Mary's has corrected some of the architectural insults of a 1970s-era remodeling job, returning the church to its original splendor and beauty.
An all-volunteer demolition project stripped the church to its rafters and wall studs in three days, but the congregation had been talking about and planning the project for 10 years, Christensen said. "They just tore it apart and carted it out in three days," he said of the false ceiling and the plaster-and-lathe walls that had been hidden under a layer of 1970s-era plywood. "It's really hard to put a value on all the volunteer labor," he said.
New electrical wiring, insulation and sheetrock were installed, and the original pews and wooden floor were refinished. More importantly, the original roof line and interior ceilings were restored.
"The ceiling is back to its original 18-foot height," said Margaret Lindskov, guild president and lifetime member at St. Mary's.
The original choir loft was lost to history, as is the original pre-Vatican II altar, but a dozen new stained glass windows that fill the 8-foot tall Gothic windows, as well as salvaged light fixtures and Stations of the Cross, have largely restored the church to its glory days. The used items came from shuttered Catholic churches of the same historical era and were purchased from an online salvage site, Fynders Keepers Brokerage, that Christensen jokingly calls "Catholic e-Bay."
Built in 1919, the church was downsized and diminished in the mid-1970s in an attempt to economize. Even the stations of the cross got small in the earlier remodel.
Those 4 x 4-inch statuary scenes depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ were replaced with salvaged ones — made using an unusual plaster-and-horsehair sculpting technique the same year the Isabel church was constructed — from a closed Nebraska church.
A tabernacle altar came from South Carolina and a set of pendulum light fixtures came out of a Scranton, Pa., church, and replaced the fluorescent ceiling lights.
But it is 12 new stained-glass windows — eight large and four small — depicting the Mysteries of the Rosary that were created and installed by Reinarts Stained Glass Studio in Winona, Minn., that displays the congregation's commitment to the renovation project.
The windows cost about $68,000, in addition to the renovation costs, and were installed this spring, just in time for Easter-week services. The rest of the renovations were completed last fall in time for a dedication by Rapid City Bishop Robert Gruss in September.
St. Mary's Church feast day is Sept. 8, the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Courtesy The Ottawa Citizen - Jan 2, 2008 by Jennifer Green
In an age of cynicism, nothing is sacred and everything is for sale. Religious artifacts are being auctioned off to private collectors in the United States and Europe, writes Jennifer Green. The trend has some asking, 'If this religious heritage is valuable for the Americans, why not us?'
CREDIT: Bruno Schlumberger, the ottawa citizenRon McDermid is a warden at Gatineau's St. Thomas church. In 1993, thieves stripped the building of its contents, including the church's stained-glass windows. Priests' robes used as paint rags. Magnificent church carvings tossed out for garbage collection. Gold and silver altarware melted down. Chalices for sale online.
In the past few decades, Canada has lost an untold amount of its religious heritage, as churches have sold off artifacts, either unaware of their value or desperate for funds to cover maintenance costs. Nobody can really put a dollar amount on it, but priceless, hand-carved altars and statuary have gone to private collectors in the United States and Europe. Some have even gone to Canadian museums.
Less ornate Protestant churches have had fewer items go missing but they are still vulnerable.
In the wee hours of a September morning in 1993, thieves pulled up with a truck to the 130-year-old church of St. Thomas in Gatineau and stripped it bare. Even its plain glass windows were popped out and carted away.
Police scouted local flea markets, but had no luck locating the stolen goods.
Over the next decade, the elderly congregation pieced together another organ and more furniture, only to have all the altar appointments -- cloths, silverware, and a chalice -- stolen last year. This time, the vandals also took the honour rolls of parishioners who fought in the First and Second World Wars.
In Britain, skyrocketing copper prices have spurred vandals to strip the roofs off 1,800 churches in 2007 alone, causing three million pounds damage. Some vicars are slathering roofs with slippery paint, while others are using a high-tech chemical that tags stolen metal. Some are even sleeping in the sanctuary.
In the southern U.S., thieves are overrunning graveyards to nab tombstones, prized for their ornate craftsmanship and Tiffany stained glass insets.
It's official: nothing is sacred. In fact, it's all for sale.
"It fits into a larger trend of thefts of what I call cultural heritage," says Katja Zigerlig, director of art insurance for AIG private client group. "In the last 10 years, we are seeing more audacious kinds of thefts." Thieves can go to a church or synagogue and photograph potential targets with cellphones. They research the items online, and, if it is worth it, go back and nab it without much difficulty. They can then market the pieces on auction sites such as eBay. The goods move out of the area, making it that much harder to trace. Buyers who might be squeamish about an antique tombstone from, say, Fitzroy Harbour, could be more comfortable with something from Louisiana. Neighbours would be less likely to realize that the new coffee table was once Great Aunt Viola's headstone.
Says Ms. Zigerlig: "On eBay, it will sell for much less than it's worth, but there is no way of tracking the provenance." Not that many people would care. Darcy Ilich picks up most of her religious items at vintage fairs for her Vancouver design shop, The Cross.
"The large crosses do really well." So do the heart-shape black metal plaques from French graveyards with the deceased's name and dates of birth and death. "It's funny who buys this. It's often people who grew up in a faith, but don't necessarily practise it now. " Has anyone ever admonished her? "Not yet." Brendan Hamtil, owner of the online business Fynders Keepers in Kansas, sells religious objects for tens of thousands of dollars, acting as a broker between parishes that are closing, and parishes that need religious goods. A marble carving might sell for as much as $33,000.
Mr. Hamtil, a practising Catholic, insists that items used in the mass must go to a church -- and he checks the credentials.
Would that all internet traffic was so pure. Houses of worship have always been easy targets. Many once left their sanctuaries open night and day. They were hallowed ground. Surely, even a thief would hesitate to steal from God.
For most denominations, that sense of awe has dwindled in the past few decades. Congregations have dwindled too, meaning churches are closing. Stained glass donated by bereaved families or altar cloths embroidered by church ladies may be irreplaceable in one sense, but unusable in another.
For the Catholic Church, the new liturgy of Vatican II accelerated the problem.
In the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reformed how Catholics would worship. Frills and furbelows were out; modern Christian art was in. The priest would face the people during mass instead of turning his back to them. For many churches, that meant tearing out the old altar, usually fixed to the wall, and installing a free-standing altar.
In 1962, Joseph-Henri Gariépy, parish priest at l'Ange-Gardien on the shores of the St. Lawrence River near Beapré, Que., decided to do some housecleaning. The parish was one of the oldest in the province, founded in 1644, and had a lot of "old-fashioned things" that he sold for about $800: two sculpted Madonnas in gilded wood, six candlesticks, 10 others carved in wood, one sculpted wood crucifix, three statues of saints, two chalices, a censer, incense boat, vials for Holy Oils, a solid silver stoup (or holy water bowl), two cruets, and a baptismal ewer. Unbeknownst to the priest, many of these objects were made by renowned artisans, and were worth at least $100,000.
Benoît Pelletier, now Quebec's minister for intergovernmental affairs, was a University of Ottawa law professor when he wrote an academic paper about the case. He said the pieces were sold to antique dealers who passed them along to private collectors, including the Musée du Québec, and the National Gallery of Canada.
In 1976, the church council of l'Ange Gardien took the original buyer to court, saying that, under Quebec law, religious objects are not subject to commerce. The church won, but the museums fought on, fearful of a precedent that would empty their display cases. Curators pointed out that impoverished parishes could not provide enough security, insurance and climate-controlled display for these works of art.
The National Gallery tried to take the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada but was turned down. Finally, all the items were returned.
The case showed how "the religious, political and administrative authorities turned a blind eye to these dealings," said Mr. Pelletier. "(It) resulted in the end of the 'bleeding' which in, the past, emptied churches of their treasures and which enriched so many museums and personal collections." Or did it? Just a few years ago, a Montreal antique dealer paid $100,000 for the stained glass, benches and lights from St. Julien du Lachute. American interests bought the package from him for an unknown sum, and purpose.
Heritage activist Michel Prevost says: "Most of the people think that this era is over but it continues even today. If this religious heritage is valuable for the Americans, why not us?" L'Abbe Claude Turmel, one of the founders of the province's Conseil du patrimoine religieux ligieux, has long agitated for preservation of religious artifacts.
"We don't have castles (as Europe does). We have churches. Every kind of art, we find in the churches. It's history but it's also the soul of a people. Some people are disposing of them when they shouldn't, even politicians, and bishops and government workers ... but they will not say so openly." He says it's the same worldwide, especially in other areas where traditional Catholicism has been driven underground. "Going behind the Iron Curtain ... it's possible to buy everything." He and several colleagues went to Mexico to discuss preserving Catholic artifacts, but the bishop there would not even receive them.
Msgr. Kevin Beach, in the Ottawa archdiocese, says Ottawa, as a frontier town, has had less sumptuous items for thieves to covet. But it is just as serious when something goes missing, especially anything to do with celebrating mass, such as the chalice and the ciborium, which holds the hosts.
Unfortunately, these are often lined with gold, making them particular targets for people who want to make a fast buck by melting them down, says Rev. Bill Burke, acting director of the National Liturgy Office with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Others steal it because they like the way it looks, and they think it will look nice on the shelf in the living room." But some people responded to Vatican II by surreptitious intervention.
"Some people had tremendous affection for certain statues or other objects, and they saw that it would not be properly used, so they took them home and kept them where they would be treated reverentially." That's the sort of light-fingered faith that many parish priests would wink at, he says.
"A lot of things were done by people who had very little background and knowledge of art and ... it's importance in worship. I saw some wonderful mahogany and oak wood, torn out and replaced by plywood. I have seen frescoes painted over." Still, the small thefts seem the saddest. Not far away from St. Thomas church near Gatineau, someone shattered the minister's office window at St. Stephen's Anglican church in Buckingham and took the the original chalice. Rev. Don Tudin says ruefully that the parking lot is often used for drug deals.
Ron McDermid, St. Thomas' warden, says: "You really do wonder about people. You get downhearted but you just have to hang your hat on next year's peg and keep on going."