Catholic demographics change; parishes can dwindle in size. But traditional artistic elements remain timeless. When a church closes, the tears of sadness can turn into tears of joy if its beautiful art and architectural elements are used in new or renovated churches.
"What do you do with the Church’s patrimony?" asks architect Domiane Forte (DomianeForte.com) of Santa Paula, Calif. "The first and foremost duty is to keep it within the Church."
That’s why the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tenn., are seeking timeless artifacts for their new St. Dominic Chapel — which will be built at their campus of three schools (DominicanCampus.org).
It’s also why they chose to work with Forte, who studied classics at Thomas Aquinas College and architecture at the University of Notre Dame under Duncan Stroik, one of the founders of the new renaissance of sacred architecture.
The Dominicans have already amassed several elements that the new chapel will be built around. In the Boston Archdiocese, they found five magnificent mosaics (depicting saints devoted to the Blessed Sacrament, such as Imelda, Tarcisius, Columba and Stanislaus Kostka) from the former Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Jamaica Plains, Mass., which closed in 2006.
From the same church came two shrines, the work of Joseph Sibbel (1850-1907), one of the finest ecclesiastical sculptors in U.S. history. The 12-foot-high shrines, each from single blocks of white Carrara marble, along with their accompanying marble altar railings, depict Our Lady, Comforter of the Afflicted and the death of St. Joseph.
"Given the fact we have a strong pro-life focus for our sisters, both pieces are significant for our chapel," notes Sister Catherine Marie, the executive director of The Dominican Campus.
The "main attraction" of the church is from the Church of St. Ann, which closed in Lawrence, Mass., in 1990: It’s a monumental semicircular Romanesque marble baldachino and altar, complete with columns, mosaics and statuary (including the Blessed Mother and a huge crucifix).
"This one was sized perfectly for the chapel," says Forte. It fits well with the stained glass, planned pews and other artifacts already procured. Everything is in storage, ready for construction to commence, as donations come in to fund the 550-seat chapel.
Sister Catherine Marie believes that these rescued artifacts have great purpose: "Our church needs to be instructive as well as inspirational. The reality of Christ’s true presence in the Blessed Sacrament needs to be experienced. The Mass is a mystery we are called to enter into. By constructing something of great beauty, we hope to speak of the timelessness and the transcendence to which each of us is called."
A stellar example of sacred reclamation is the new church of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish (BlTeresaCalcutta.com) in Limerick Township, part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The parish was formed in 2006 by consolidating two smaller parishes. On Oct. 27, 2011, Archbishop Charles Chaput dedicated the new edifice.
"It was our intention to create something that said: ‘This is a Catholic church,’" emphasizes Father Paul Brandt, the pastor of Blessed Teresa’s.
In 2006, he searched the archdiocese’s closed churches for liturgical art, finding beautiful pieces.
Architects designed the church around a magnificent altar that the priest discovered: "I acquired a 37-foot-high Carrara marble altar made in 1910, a magnificent piece certainly worth building the church around." The altar, with its triple spires and superlative filigree work, came from St. Boniface Church in North Philadelphia, which closed in 2006. Father Brandt told the carpenters to rescue every piece of wood in St. Boniface’s, too.
While the enormous stained-glass windows from St. Boniface were too large for the new Blessed Teresa’s church, Father Brandt found equally outstanding stained-glass windows at Philadelphia’s St. Clement Church, which closed in 2004.
The 10 priceless windows, from the 19th century, depicting the Rosary’s mysteries, are from the fabled Franz Myers Studios in Germany. Another altar and pulpit were found at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Middleport, Pa.; the Stations of the Cross came from the Mercy Hospital chapel in Scranton, Pa.; and other artifacts, including the holy water fonts and statues, came from St. Peter’s and St. Clare’s, the two churches that merged into this new parish.
All of the reclaimed elements fit perfectly with the new church’s 19th-century neo-Gothic style. Father Brandt had Murals by Jericho (MuralsbyJericho.com) stencil a traditional design behind the altar to complement the whole reclamation.
The reclamation has brought joy to so many, including those from St. Boniface. "We had a Mass for former parishioners of St. Boniface," notes Father Brandt, and they received "a sense of life and hope that important elements from their church have been re-created somewhere else."
Such joy has also been found at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Pendleton, Ore. (StMarysPendleton.org), the third church the pastor, Father Bailey Clemens, has restored, beginning with another St. Mary’s in Illinois.
The Pendleton parish dates to the 19th century, but the stone church, with its beautiful exterior, came much later. Renovations that predate Father Clemens’ arrival left a plain interior, however, as sacred art was removed.
"It lost its ability to raise minds to a higher level," the priest recalls, "and something needed to be done."
The best reclamation treasure that St. Mary’s acquired was the altar from St. Ladislas Church in Cleveland. The church also had beautiful reredos, ornate altar railings and a lovely tabernacle.
Eventually, all of those artifacts found their way to Pendleton, along with a baptismal font that features a statue of Jesus and John the Baptist (and an ambo from another closed Cleveland church).
The artifacts look like they always belonged in St. Mary’s, as does the new mural of the Crucifixion that Father Clemens designed behind the altar, which was painted by Murals by Jericho.
"I wanted to restore our traditions, and ancient is not bad," Father Clemens reflects. "We can hold onto a lot of things that are beautiful from the past."
Former St. Ladislas parishioners agree. "Many wanted to see the altar saved and prayed about it," says Father Clemens. "They had received first Communion at the altar rail or were married in the church. Now, they’re glad it all found a place — and some have come here to visit."
About the Nashville project, Forte observes what appears to be true with all of these projects: "The Holy Spirit was saying, ‘This is going here.’"
Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.