ALBANY, N.Y. — The altar was old. It was ornate. And it was on the gambling floor of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
James Lang was startled when he saw it there. Lang, vicar of parishes for the Roman Catholic diocese in Syracuse, had a chat with the manager about desecration. The altar eventually was removed.
“They thought it looked cool,” Lang remembers.
It also looked like part of a growing phenomenon: Religious artifacts are migrating as America’s shifting population leaves empty churches across the Midwest and Northeast. This March, New York City’s archdiocese recommended shutting 31 metro parishes, and Boston has closed almost 60 in three years.
So, chalices appear in antique shop windows. A confessional turns up in an Italian cafe. A stained-glass window of St. Patrick lands in a pub. And don’t even start with eBay.
People who deal in such artifacts say interest in them is growing.
And while some are troubled by secular re-uses of religious items, they’re encouraged about a different set of collectors: New churches in booming suburbs and in the South and West that are reaching for the relics of an older generation.
From 1952 to 2000, hundreds of thousands of Catholics left the inner cities, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Philadelphia, for example, lost 198,000, but nearby Bucks County picked up 234,000. Detroit, Baltimore and Boston saw similar urban-suburban shifts.
Meanwhile, the South and West boomed. Los Angeles County added 3.4 million Catholics, and the counties that are home to Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Miami and San Antonio grew by more than 400,000 each.
In Lubbock, Texas, Holy Spirit parish is building a new church for a congregation that’s grown from 30 families to about 700 in seven years. Its pastor, the Rev. Eugene Driscoll, grew up in Philadelphia, where his old parish closed in 2004. He asked the diocese if he could rescue some pieces of his past. Now, among other items, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima from his old school stands in his Texas prayer garden.
Every month, a downtown Philadelphia warehouse is unlocked to reveal about 2,000 items from closed area churches. Those in the religious community can browse tables of marble statues, altar pieces, candlesticks and tabernacles, or thumb through racks of vestments.
“We try to have it as tastefully arranged as possible,” says Ed Rafferty, who handles the warehouse for the diocese. Private individuals are not allowed.
Some dioceses use dealers to help place objects in other religious locations. Some don’t specify where items should go and let the dealers decide.
“We’re an equal-opportunity seller,” says Stuart Grannen, owner of the Chicago-based Architectural Artifacts, whose Web site boasts religious artifacts as its newest category. Recently listed were a carved oak bench from a Minneapolis church for $12,000 and a marble Ten Commandments from a Milwaukee synagogue for $3,800.
The Web site of Georgia-based King Richard’s Religious Artifacts offers everything from antique crucifixes to gold-plated holy water sprinklers. Owner Rick Lair says he’s worked with dozens of churches in upstate New York.
An altar from a downsizing Buffalo convent found its way to Our Lady of Hope, a church in northern Virginia that opened in January. Through architects and dealers, Rev. William Saunders decorated with items from churches as far away as San Francisco, including windows from a German-built church in Elmira, N.Y. His hand-carved marble altar came from the Philadelphia warehouse, for just $500.
“We were the first to do this in our diocese,” Saunders says. “Now others are starting.”
Interest in church items has even led to a new but unofficial order of priests devoted to preservation, the Society of St. John Cantius in Chicago.
“We’re trying to bring back beautiful things,” said the Rev. Jim Isaacson, noting that the order was formed after many items from closed area churches were simply discarded.
Some dioceses destroy items if another church won’t take them so they don’t fall into private hands.
“We don’t want to find an altar railing in a bar,” says Sister Regina Murphy, director of research and planning for the Buffalo diocese. “Or a confessional in a restaurant. People are kind of aghast at that. So we dismantle it completely.”
The Rev. Pat Butler wishes there were a national clearinghouse for religious artifacts. The Albany-area priest worries about how much is being lost or desecrated.
He recalled once visiting a Missouri home furnished with an altar and church candlesticks bought at an auction. The owner explained how she’d also wanted a certain gold box for her jewelry.
“I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” Butler says. He asked her to describe it. The box was a tabernacle, the enclosure for consecrated hosts, often kept at the center of the altar.
Though that troubled him, Butler encourages reuse by churches. He once received a windfall himself.
Some 150 years ago, Irish immigrants built Gothic-spired St. Joseph’s Church in downtown Albany, but over time it declined and was finally abandoned and sold for $1. Surrounded by rowhouses, it is now in the hands of the Historic Albany Foundation.
“It’s like Pompeii. It’s like life just stopped,” says the foundation’s executive director, Susan Holland, leading the way through the empty rooms where red vestments of altar boys still hang in a closet and a booklet of Christmas carols, published in 1960, gathers dust.
And yet, much has changed in the church. In worship space that seated 1,000-plus, pews have been ripped up and piled to the side. The walnut confessional was taken out with a chainsaw.
A few years ago, Butler – helping design his new church, Christ the King, in suburban Guilderland – expressed interest in St. Joseph’s fixtures after learning that the diocese couldn’t afford to remove them.
Now, some former parishioners of St. Joseph’s who worship at Christ the King notice familiar details from the old downtown church, including marble statues, Gothic arched doors and a 1913 wooden pulpit.
“They’re like our family pictures,” Butler said. “When you move, you take the pictures off the wall and move to the next place.”
An appraisal of the items Butler salvaged and worked into the design came to $900,000. And he got them all for free.
By CARA ANNA