These Churches Have Been Closed, but Their Artifacts Live On
Last-minute Christmas shopping in New York City is a famously grueling, elbows-out enterprise, a movable melee often involving the navigation of jam-packed shops and subways all over town.
But if you happen to be a Roman Catholic priest, deacon or nun looking to spruce up your house of worship for the holiday season, your task is much simpler: Just point your car to the South Shore of Staten Island, and a serene afternoon of one-stop shopping awaits you.
On the green grounds of Mount Loretto, formerly an orphanage, stands a 17,000-square-foot, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style storehouse stuffed to the rafters with artifacts salvaged by the Archdiocese of New York from scores of churches deconsecrated and sold since 2004. Known as the Patrimony Warehouse, the facility was established to preserve the sorts of relics that sometimes wound up in antiques shops, the homes of parishioners or the trash.
In addition to storing sacred items like altars and incense censers, which according to canon law are permitted to be only in places of worship, the warehouse is a repository of secular artifacts like stained-glass windows.
Such objects “could still have other value, such as artistic or historical,” or simply monetary, said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. These artifacts “help tell the story of the history of a church that is important to people who, back when the church was being built, contributed either monetarily or through their labor,” he said. “So we wanted to honor that contribution.”
A plaster pietà of Mary cradling Jesus’s dead body was salvaged from St. Lucy’s Church in East Harlem, and is on display in the Patrimony Warehouse of the Archdiocese of New York on Staten Island. Priests from as far away as India and Africa have browsed the collection and had their chosen items shipped to their home parishes.Credit…Tom Sibley for The New York Times
The Christmas season is especially busy for John Amatrudo, the gracious, Staten Island-born director of church patrimony. Priests have been bustling in and out of the warehouse of late,trying to cross things off their shopping lists.
“Nativity sets are always big this time of year,” Mr. Amatrudo said. “We never overstock on Nativity, but they go quite quickly.” For priests with incomplete sets, the warehouse even has a stray donkey and a stray bull on hand, as well as an inventory of spare camels.
Candelabra sets, too, have been flying off the shelves for Christmas. “They want to put them around the poinsettias around the altar,” he said.
For the first-time visitor to the warehouse, the multiplicity of sacred objects usually seen by themselves can have a surreal aspect. A glass case displays dozens of chalices and wine-and-water cruet sets. A side room is full to bursting with holy water fonts. And the rear of the statue room calls to mind a scene from the film “Being John Malkovich,” in which a crowded restaurant is populated entirely by various incarnations of Mr. Malkovich; in this case, the room is thronged with multiples of Jesus Christ, including five small quintuplets splayed atop a pipe-organ console and a pair of formerly crucified saviors, absent their crosses, lying side by side in matching holy agony.
Other statues — of the Blessed Mother and an eclectic assortment of saints — stand in their multitudes like a rookery of colorful penguins.
“This is my last Mother Cabrini,” Mr. Amatrudo said, resting his palm on the head of a waist-high plaster statue of the canonized Italian-American nun Frances Xavier Cabrini, rescued from St. Lucy’s Church in East Harlem after the church’s deconsecration in 2017.
Mr. Amatrudo never throws anything out, he said, in case a priest comes in looking for a missing fragment. In an 1890s card catalog in his office, the loose finger of a plaster Jesus shares a drawer with Duracell batteries.
Laypeople are not permitted to shop at the warehouse, and there are generally no listed prices. When an artifact is transferred to a parish, the archdiocese typically asks for a donation commensurate with that parish’s means.
Even at a time of supply-chain troubles in the secular world, the ongoing closings and mergers of parishes have provided the Patrimony Warehouse with a steady pipeline of holy artifacts.
The first major influx of ecclesiastical inventory came after the archdiocese’s 2007 decision to close or merge 21 parishes. Then, in 2014, the archdiocese — which encompasses Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx and seven other New York State counties — announced a broader round of parish closings and mergers under a planning process called Making All Things New. The consolidation was driven in part by financial constraints, changing demographics and dwindling church attendance in the affected parishes.
Mr. Zwilling, the archdiocese spokesman, said the church wanted to use its limited resources where they were needed most. “Our churches, beautiful as they are, are not built as museums — they’re built to serve the spiritual, the pastoral, the faith needs of the community,” he said.
Since 2007, the number of parishes in the archdiocese has shrunk to 284 from 403. In that time, 30 churches have been deconsecrated for secular use in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, leaving 172 Catholic churches in those boroughs. And the consolidation continues.
Whenever possible, new religious homes are found for salvaged relics. In 2008, some 30 stained-glass windows from the imposing neo-Gothic Church of St. Thomas the Apostle on West 118th Street in Harlem, designed by the Mayer of Munich studio in Germany, were removed and reconditioned after a preservation campaign failed. Those windows were later installed 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 smaller windows from St. Thomas depicting angels were shipped to a church in Taiwan. (As for the 1907 church complex of St. Thomas the Apostle, 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 most striking items in the warehouse are a pair of white-marble angels that once flanked the high altar at the Church of All Saints, on Madison Avenue and 129th Street. The splendid Italian Gothic Revival-style church, built starting in the 1880s after designs by the architect James Renwick Jr., is sometimes called the St. Patrick’s of Harlem — a reference to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 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 merged with that of the Church of St. Charles Borromeo, on West 141st Street, and in 2017 All Saints was deconsecrated.
That’s when the Patrimony Warehouse came into play. After a church is deconsecrated and made available for secular purposes andpossible sale, canon law holds that all sacred relics and furnishings must be removed for use in other sacred edifices or stored in ecclesiastical custody. If the church’s altars cannot be removed, they must be destroyed.
After the deconsecration of All Saints, a comprehensive inventory of its valuable objects was made. Before disassembly, the component parts of large items like the high altar were carefully labeled, photographed and documented, so each artifact could one day be put back together like a giant, sacred jigsaw puzzle. Photographs and descriptions of each item were compiled in a binder that serves as a shopping catalog for warehouse visitors.
The dismantling of the church’s interior was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and finally completed early this year. Workers disassembled the great marble altar with power saws fitted with masonry blades. To reach the clerestory windows high above the pews, somefour stories of scaffolding were erected inside the church, and most of the stained-glass windows were taken out — over the objections of preservationists — and replaced with clear glass. The city Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the removal of stained glass and exterior sculptural masonry associated with religious imagery.
The altar and stained glass now reside in the warehouse. The 16-foot-high gilded crucifix is stored in crated sections, Jesus lying akimbo in the garage.
But a diaspora of All Saints relics have found after-lives elsewhere.
“The pipe organ” — built by the Roosevelt Organ Works in 1892 — “was the last piece to go out” of the church, Mr. Amatrudo said. “It’s being reconditioned and will go to St. Paul the Apostle,” a church on West 59th Street.
In addition, a small wooden altar of sacrifice was sent to Moore Catholic High School, on Staten Island. The church’s richly carved pews, among the city’s most elaborate, went to a church in Chicago. And marble statues of Joseph and Mary landed in Bridgeport, Conn. (The All Saints complex, which includes an attached parish school and parish house, was sold in March for $10.85 million to the developer CSC Coliving. A modernization of the school and 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 the two buildings next fall on a long-term lease.)
Back in the warehouse, Mr. Amatrudo is eager to use two darkly varnished vestment cabinets from All Saints to enhance his merchandise display. He has arranged the cabinets — neo-Gothic beauties made of quarter-sawn oak — in a felicitous manner in the entry chamber and plans to leave their doors open, filling them with vestments to make a good first impression on shoppers.
“These cabinets have style,” he said proudly. “So when you walk in the front door, this is what greets you.”
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