Here's an interesting feature on the Museum of Divine Statues, a new establishment for preserving discarded liturgical objects.
Among the many challenges posed by the closing of an old church or religious building is what happens to the sacred art or liturgical objects. They've been part of sacred rituals or prayers by generations of worshippers. They can't be tossed out or just sent to a yard sale.
This is a particular concern in the Catholic Church. Many (older, pre -1950) churches are being consolidated into single parishes, resulting in closed buildings and left over liturgical furnishing and artifacts. What happens to these items? Can they be refurbished or reused?
Our first encounter with this issue came as a complete surprise. In 1959, Clovis and I lived for a year in Rome on a Fulbright scholarship. When we perused a local flea market, we found a jumble of old church statues and liturgical objects. We didn't ask whether the most sacred objects were reserved only for the clergy, but there were many objects that were appropriate for non-church use. We bought a pair of ornate candle holders which we still use today.
The US Conference of Bishops' document, "Built of Living Stones," offers guidelines for the disposition of liturgical objects and art in general, but defers to each Bishop to determine the appropriate norms for each diocese.
Liturgical objects that are no longer needed can be donated to another church. The Diocese of Greenburg has donated liturgical furnishings to a Vietnamese monastery in San Bernadino, California, and to the Apostles of Jesus in Africa.
The New York Times recently featured an interesting solution in Cleveland. As an avocation, a local resident began restoring and salvaging old statues. With the help of donations, he bought one of the recently closed churches and has turned it into the Museum of Divine Statues.
Some liturgical objects have found their way to liturgical art and antique dealers for resale. DC Riggott sells church antiques, and will only sell sacred items to clergy or churches. King Richard Religious Antiques makes every effort to find Catholic homes for these sacred objects in new or renovated churches or in private chapels.
Recently Heimsath Architects was commissioned for the liturgical design of the Maxwell Chapel at the Seton Children’s Hospital in Austin. Though the Chapel is used for all faiths, it also needed to function appropriately for Catholic worship. We recommended a prominent location for the tabernacle, positioned at the base of the stained glass window we were designing for the space. In the Catholic Church, the tabernacle is the location for the reserved Eucharist. The design and location of the tabernacle must be carefully planned and considered for both ritual and symbolic purposes.
We had several ideas for an appropriate tabernacle design, but before we developed them, our client was contacted by Carl McQueary, the archivist for Seton Hospital. Years ago he had purchased an antique tabernacle from a dealer who gave him limited information about its provenance. He did know that the tabernacle came from a small country church in Italy. From the look and construction, he suggested that it dated back to the 1800’s.
When the tabernacle was brought to our office the exterior was in excellent condition but the interior, lined with brocade fabric, was worn and stained from years of use. We found a suitable new fabric and carefully replaced the interior lining.
The refurbished tabernacle is donated to the chapel in memory of Carl’s father. It is a reminder and connection to the past for the people who worship there today.
We've worked many times to save or re-use these sacred items. It's clear to us that the disposition of an unused liturgical object should take serious consideration and respect, no matter which faith tradition it comes from. With some creative thinking, there may be many ways and many locations appropriate for re-use. There's something very gratifying about giving new life to a sacred object. It is a reminder of the past and the generations of worshippers who preceded us.
In 2003, Bishop Gregory Aymond blessed the new shrine of the Virgin Mary at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Ellinger, Texas. Heimsath Architects designed the shrine as a re-creation of the original. The relocated liturgical statue is historic.