These churches have been closed, but their artifacts survive

Last minute Christmas shopping in New York City is a famously grueling endeavor, a mobile melee often involving navigating crowded store...


Last minute Christmas shopping in New York City is a famously grueling endeavor, a mobile melee often involving navigating crowded stores and subways all over the city.

But if you’re a Catholic priest, deacon, or nun looking to spruce up your place of worship for the holiday season, your task is much simpler: just drive your car to the south shore of Staten Island, and a serene one-stop-shop afternoon awaits you.

On the verdant grounds of Mount Loretto, a former orphanage, stands a 17,000 square foot ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ style warehouse filled to the rafters with artifacts recovered by the Archdiocese of New York from dozens of buildings. Churches disused and sold since 2004. Known under the name of Warehouse of the Patrimony, the establishment was created to preserve the kinds of relics which are sometimes found in the antique shops, the houses of the parishioners or the garbage.

In addition to storing sacred objects such as altars and censers, which according to canon law are only allowed in places of worship, the warehouse is a repository of secular artifacts such as stained glass.

Such objects “could have yet another value, such as artistic or historical”, or simply monetary, said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese. These artifacts “help tell the story of a church which is important to people who, during the time of the church’s construction, contributed either financially or through their work,” he said. . “So we wanted to honor this contribution.”

The Christmas season is especially busy for John Amatrudo, the gracious Church Heritage Director who was born on Staten Island. Lately priests have been coming in and out of the warehouse, trying to cross things off their shopping lists.

“Nurseries are always big at this time of year,” Mr. Amatrudo said. “We never overstock on Nativity, but they go pretty quickly. For priests with incomplete sets, the warehouse even has a wandering donkey and wandering bull on hand, along with an inventory of spare camels.

Candelabra sets also stole shelves for Christmas. “They want to put them around the poinsettias around the altar,” he said.

For the visitor who is visiting the warehouse for the first time, the multiplicity of sacred objects usually seen alone can have a surreal aspect. A display case presents dozens of chalices and sets of wine and water cruets. An annex room is jam-packed with holy water clams. And the back of the Statues Hall is reminiscent of a scene from the movie “Being John Malkovich”, in which a crowded restaurant is fully populated by various incarnations of Mr. Malkovich; in this case, the room is filled with multiples of Jesus Christ, including five small quintuplets spread out atop a pipe organ console and a pair of once crucified saviors, absent from their crosses, lying side by side in a corresponding holy agony.

Other statues – of the Blessed Mother and an eclectic assortment of saints – stand in their multitude like a colony of colorful penguins.

“This is my last mother Cabrini,” said Mr. Amatrudo, resting his palm on the head of a waist-high plaster statue of the canonized Italian-American nun Frances Xavier Cabrini, rescued from the Church of St. Lucie in East Harlem after the church died. deconsecration in 2017.

Mr. Amatrudo never throws anything away, he said, in case a priest comes looking for a missing fragment. In an 1890s catalog in his office, the loose finger of a plaster Jesus shares a drawer with Duracell batteries.

Lay people are not allowed to shop in the warehouse and there are usually no prices displayed. When an artifact is transferred to a parish, the Archdiocese generally requests a donation commensurate with the means of that parish.

Even in an era of supply chain problems in the secular world, ongoing ward closures and mergers have provided the Heritage Warehouse with a constant pipeline of sacred artifacts.

The first significant influx of ecclesiastical inventories came after the Archdiocese’s decision in 2007 to close or merge 21 parishes. Then, in 2014, the Archdiocese – which encompasses Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx and seven other counties in New York state – announced a larger series of parish closures and mergers as part of a process. planning called Making All Things New. The consolidation was motivated in part by financial constraints, changing demographics and declining church attendance in affected parishes.

Archdiocese spokesperson Mr Zwilling said the church wanted to use its limited resources where they were needed most. “Our churches, beautiful as they are, are not built like museums – they are built to serve the spiritual, pastoral and religious needs of the community,” he said.

Since 2007, the number of parishes in the Archdiocese has grown from 403 to 284. During this period, 30 churches were decommissioned for secular purposes in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, leaving 172 Catholic churches in these. boroughs. And the consolidation continues.

Where possible, new religious houses are found for the recovered relics. In 2008, around 30 stained glass windows in the imposing neo-Gothic St. Thomas the Apostle Church on West 118th Street in Harlem, designed by the Mayer studio in Munich, Germany, were removed and reconditioned after a failed preservation campaign. . These windows were then installed in the upstate, in the new Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Church in LaGrangeville. Other windows went to St. Brigid’s Church in the East Village. And last year, 14 small Saint Thomas windows depicting angels were shipped to a church in Taiwan. (As for the St. Thomas the Apostle Church complex from 1907, it was sold to Artimus Construction for $ 6 million in 2012; the church was truncated and its remaining front portion now serves as a vaulted event space called Harlem Parish.)

Two of the warehouse’s most striking items are a pair of white marble angels that once flanked the high altar at All Saints’ Day Church on Madison Avenue and 129th Street. The splendid Italian Gothic Revival style church, built from the 1880s to plans by architect James Renwick Jr., is sometimes referred to as St. Patrick’s of Harlem – a reference to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the Fifth Avenue, which Mr. Renwick also designed. All Saints is a city landmark, a designation that protects its exterior, but not its interior.

In 2015, the parish of All Saints ‘Day merged with that of Saint-Charles Borromée Church, on West 141st Street, and in 2017, All Saints’ Day was desecrated.

This is when the Heritage Warehouse came into play. After a church was desecrated and made available for secular purposes and sale possible, canon law stipulates that all sacred relics and furniture must be removed for use in other sacred buildings or stored under ecclesiastical care. If church altars cannot be removed, they must be destroyed.

After the desecration of All Saints’ Day, a complete inventory of its valuables was carried out. Before disassembly, the components of large objects like the high altar were carefully labeled, photographed and documented, so that each artifact could one day be put together like a giant, sacred puzzle. Photographs and descriptions of each item were compiled into a binder that serves as a shopping catalog for warehouse visitors.

The dismantling of the interior of the church was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and finally completed early this year. The workers dismantled the great marble altar with power saws fitted with masonry blades. To reach the slatted windows above the benches, some four stories of scaffolding were erected inside the church, and most of the stained glass windows were removed – despite curatorial objections – and replaced with clear glass. The city’s Monuments Preservation Commission has approved the removal of stained glass and exterior sculptural masonry associated with religious imagery.

The altar and the stained glass windows are now in the warehouse. The 16-foot-high golden crucifix is ​​stored in crate sections with Jesus lying on his hips in the garage.

But a diaspora of All Saints’ Day relics has found an afterlife elsewhere.

The “pipe organ” – built by the Roosevelt Organ Works in 1892 – “was the last piece to come out” of the church, Mr. Amatrudo said. “It is being repackaged and will go to St. Paul the Apostle,” a church on West 59th Street.

In addition, a small wooden sacrifice altar was sent to Moore Catholic High School, Staten Island. The church’s richly carved pews, some of the most elaborate in the city, went to a Chicago church. And marble statues of Joseph and Mary landed in Bridgeport, Connecticut (the All Saints complex, which includes an adjoining parish school and parish house, was sold in March for $ 10.85 million to developer CSC Coliving. Modernization of the school and the conversion of the church into a school auditorium, designed by Tang Studio Architect, is underway, and the Capital Preparatory Harlem Charter School plans to move into both buildings next fall on a lease. long-term.)

Back in the warehouse, Mr. Amatrudo is eager to use two dark varnished clothing cabinets from All Saints to enhance his merchandise display. He has arranged the wardrobes – neo-Gothic quarter-sawn oak beauties – happily in the entry bedroom and plans to leave their doors open, filling them with clothes to make a good first impression on buyers.

“These cabinets are stylish,” he said proudly. “So when you walk through the front door, that’s what greets you. “

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