These churches have been closed, but their artifacts live on
Last minute Christmas shopping in New York City is known to be a grueling, arduous undertaking, moving hand-to-hand combat that often involves navigating crowded shops and subways across the city.
But if you’re a Roman Catholic priest, deacon, or nun looking to spice up your house of worship for the Christmas season, your job is a lot easier: just point your car at Staten Island’s South Shore and have a quiet afternoon of one-stop Shopping awaits you.
On the leafy grounds of Mount Loretto, a former orphanage, stands a 17,000-square-foot “Raiders of the Lost Treasure” -style warehouse, crammed with artifacts except for the rafters that the Archdiocese of New York has desecrated and sold dozens of churches have been salvaged since 2004. Known as the Patrimony Warehouse, the facility was established to contain relics that sometimes ended up in antique shops, community members’ homes, or in the trash.
In addition to the storage of sacred objects such as altars and censer, which according to canon law may only be placed in places of worship, the warehouse is a depot for secular artifacts such as stained glass windows.
Such objects “could have another value, such as artistic or historical,” or just monetary value, said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. These artifacts “help tell the story of a church that is important to people who contributed either financially or through their work back when the church was built,” he said. “That’s why we wanted to pay tribute to this contribution.”
The holiday season is especially busy for John Amatrudo, the gracious Staten Island-born director of heritage. Lately priests have been walking in and out of the warehouse try to cross things off their shopping list.
“Nativity sets are always big at this time of year,” said Mr. Amatrudo. “We never run out of cribs, but they go pretty quickly.” For priests with incomplete sets, the camp even has a stray donkey and a stray bull, and an inventory of spare camels.
Candelabra sets also fly off the shelves at Christmas. “They want to put them around the poinsettias around the altar,” he said.
For the first-time visitor to the warehouse, the multitude of sacred objects that one normally sees alone can have a surreal aspect. A display case displays dozens of goblets and wine-and-water cruet sets. An adjoining room is bulging with holy water fountains. And the back of the statue room is reminiscent of a scene from the movie “Being John Malkovich” in which a crowded restaurant is completely populated by various incarnations of Mr. Malkovich; In this case, the room is full of multiples of Jesus Christ, including five tiny quintuplets spread out on a pipe organ console and a pair of formerly crucified saviors lying side by side in fitting sacred agony without their crosses.
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Other statues – the Mother of God and an eclectic collection of saints – stand in their crowd like a collection of brightly colored penguins.
“This is my last mother, Cabrini,” said Mr Amatrudo, placing his palm on the head of a waist-high plaster statue of canonized Italian-American nun Frances Xavier Cabrini, rescued from St Lucy’s Church in East Harlem after the desecration in 2017.
Mr. Amatrudo never throws anything away, he said, if a priest came looking for a missing fragment. In a card catalog from the 1890s in his office, the loose finger of a plaster Jesus shares a drawer with Duracell batteries.
Laypeople are not allowed to shop in the warehouse and there are generally no list prices. When an artifact is transferred to a parish, the archdiocese usually asks for a donation equal to that parish’s resources.
Even in times of supply chain troubles in the secular world, ongoing community closings and mergers have provided the Patrimony Warehouse with a steady pipeline of sacred artifacts.
The first major influx of church inventory came after the archdiocese’s decision in 2007 to close or merge 21 parishes. Then, in 2014, the Archdiocese – which includes Manhattan, Staten Island, the Bronx, and seven other New York state boroughs – announced a wider round of church closings and mergers as part of a planning process called “Making All Things New.” The consolidation has been driven in part by financial pressures, demographic change and the decline in church attendance in the affected communities.
Mr. Zwilling, the archdiocese spokesman, said the church wants to use its limited resources where they are most needed. “Our churches, as beautiful as they are, are not built as 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 decreased from 403 to 284. During that time, 30 churches in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island were desecrated for secular use, leaving 172 Catholic churches in those counties. And the consolidation continues.
Wherever possible, new religious houses are found for the saved relics. In 2008, around 30 stained glass windows from the imposing neo-Gothic church of St. Thomas the Apostle on West 118th Street in Harlem, which was designed by the Munich Atelier Mayer in Germany, were removed and restored after the failure of a conservation campaign. These windows were later installed in the new Saint Kateri Tekakwitha church in LaGrangeville, state. Other windows faced St. Brigid’s Church in the East Village. And last year, 14 smaller St. Thomas windows depicting angels were shipped to a church in Taiwan. (The 1907 church complex of St. Thomas the Apostle was sold to Artimus Construction for $ 6 million in 2012; the church was cut off and the remaining front section now serves as a vaulted event space called the Harlem Parish.)
Two of the most noticeable items in the warehouse are two white marble angels that once flanked the high altar of All Saints Church on Madison Avenue and 129th Street. The magnificent Italian Neo-Gothic style church, built from the 1880s to designs by architect James Renwick Jr., is sometimes referred to as St. Patrick’s of Harlem – a nod to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, which is also Mr. Renwick designed. All Saints is a symbol of the city, a designation that protects its exterior but not its interior.
In 2015 the parish of All Saints merged with the parish of St. Charles Borromeo on West 141st Street and in 2017 All Saints was desecrated.
That’s where the Patrimony Warehouse came in. After a church has been desecrated and made available for secular purposes and possible sale, canon law provides that all holy relics and furnishings for use in other sacred buildings must be removed or kept in ecclesiastical care. If the church’s altars cannot be removed, they must be destroyed.
After the desecration of All Saints’ Day, a comprehensive inventory of his valuable items was made. Before dismantling, the individual parts of large objects such as the high altar were carefully labeled, photographed and documented so that each artifact could one day be put back together like a huge, sacred puzzle. Photos and descriptions of each item have been put together in a folder that serves as a shopping catalog for warehouse visitors.
The dismantling of the interior of the church was stopped by the Covid-19 pandemic and was finally completed at the beginning of this year. Workers dismantled the large marble altar with power saws fitted with masonry blades. To reach the upper clad windows high above the pews, Four floors of scaffolding were erected inside the church, and most of the stained glass windows were removed and replaced with clear glass, against the objection of the preservationists. The City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the removal of exterior stained glass and sculptural masonry associated with religious images.
The altar and stained glass are now in the warehouse. The five meter high gilded crucifix is stored in boxes, Jesus is 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 that went out of church,” said Mr. Amatrudo. “It is under renovation and will go to St. Paul the Apostle,” a church on West 59th Street.
A small wooden sacrificial altar was also sent to Moore Catholic High School on Staten Island. The richly carved pews, some of the most ornate in the city, went to a church in Chicago. And marble statues of Joseph and Mary ended up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (The All Saints complex, which includes an attached parish school and rectory, was sold to developer CSC Coliving in March for $ 10.85 million Tang Studio Architect is underway, and Capital Preparatory Harlem Charter School plans to move into the two buildings on a long-term lease next fall.)
Back at the warehouse, Mr. Amatrudo is eager to use two dark lacquered robes from All Saints to enhance his merchandise display. He skillfully arranged the showcases – neo-Gothic beauties made of quarter-sawn oak – in the entrance chamber and wants to leave their doors open so that they can be filled with robes in order to make a good first impression on the buyer.
“These cabinets have style,” he said proudly. “So when you come through the front door, this welcomes you.”
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