Recycling the Sacred
The Roman Catholic churches stand 66 miles apart, one in the center of Harlem, the other on 82 acres between a farm and a hunting club in this rural hamlet in Dutchess County.(Eds. Note: Mankind's pre-eminent impresario of pilgrimages, parades, liturgies and ecclesiastical spectacle of every sort, the longtime master-builder of the Pharaohs -- who, legend has it, sent motorcycles running down aisles as part of a 1970s high-school production of Grease -- is venerated 'round these parts under the moniker "Cecil B. D'Addezio."
The Harlem church, St. Thomas the Apostle, is an exquisite piece of neo-Gothic architecture, its spiky terra-cotta crown resembling a wedding cake. Finished in 1907, the church first served Irish parishioners and then a black congregation that waned and withered, its Sunday Mass sparsely attended, its building in dire need of repairs, until closing in 2003. Now it faces demolition.
The church here, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, is still under construction, modest in appearance yet impressive in size. It will have a steel frame, a bluish stone facade and seats for 1,200 people — four times the number that can fit in the church it will replace, which in recent years has rapidly run out of space for its growing flock of New York City transplants.
The two churches are connected by 12 stained-glass windows from Germany depicting New Testament scenes, which have graced St. Thomas for a century and will soon surround the altar at Blessed Kateri....
Church law prohibits the sale of such religious items and calls for their disposal only if they are damaged beyond repair, so the recent wave of closings presented a problem: What to do with all the stuff — some of it beautiful, much of it quite worn — behind the churches’ padlocked doors.
There are similar programs in other parts of the country, most with elaborate safeguards, including password-protected Web sites open only to priests, and storage areas equipped with surveillance cameras and alarms.
“The last thing you want is to find one of those pieces in some antique shop or on eBay,” said Msgr. Louis A. D’Addezio of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, whose artifact-swap program was set up in 1991, one of the first in the nation.
(River City might not've landed the Big One this time, but may the world one day know what Lou D'Addezio could do with a papal visit. Suffice it to say, you'd never forget the experience. And that'd just be his Pre-Game Show.)
Often, the items move from a shuttered church to an active one without much notice or protest. But there are times when those transfers end up entangled in legal disputes, as was the case with the windows from St. Thomas.
In 2004, former St. Thomas parishioners sued the Archdiocese of New York to keep it from razing their church, arguing that they should have a say on what happens to the property. Politicians asked preservation officials to grant the church landmark status, and a descendant of the German windows’ maker wrote a letter to the archdiocese, calling the proposed demolition of St. Thomas a “barbaric act.”
“We were trying to prevent what’s been a house of worship and architectural icon for more than a century from being picked apart and destroyed,” said Eric V. Tait Jr., 68, a former altar boy at St. Thomas who has helped lead the fight to save the church, which is on West 118th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue. The church is still standing, but its future is doubtful.Indeed.
In most cases, once church officials decide to close a parish, workers visit the building to catalog what is inside, photographing the objects, noting their origin and artistic or religious significance. Priests are allowed to give small items to other priests, preferably from neighboring parishes; whatever is not distributed is wrapped and stored in empty convents, schoolhouses or warehouses.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has closed 22 churches since 1992, opens its storage vault once a month for two hours, and priests from all over have come by to look at the offerings. “We’ve placed items in Florida, Delaware, Nebraska and in New Mexico,” Monsignor D’Addezio said.
Two years ago, the Archdiocese of Newark hired an architectural historian, Troy Simmons, to manage its property. The job includes retrieving the artwork and sacred items that had been left inside closed churches there, some of which had been locked for decades.
“We found these beautiful oil paintings gathering dust under the stairs at St. John’s Church in Newark, probably since the church’s renovation in the 1960s,” Mr. Simmons said as he stood in a second-floor room at a former convent in East Orange, N.J., where the paintings are stored behind locked doors.
“There are treasures like this hidden all around,” he said.
PHOTOS: Michelle Agins and Christian Fraser/The New York Times