Preserving closed churches and the sacred

Visit three places where the past remains alive

The Apse in the Buffalo Religious Arts Center. Photo: Kevin T. Di Camillo
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In the early 2000s, the Diocese of Buffalo closed more than 70 churches. For the most part this was because of the demographics that the Rust-Belt see had experienced. While old, beautiful, immigrant churches had been built in downtown Buffalo, New York (at its peak with a population of almost 750,000, now less than half of that), and nearby Niagara Falls, New York (in 1960 120,000 souls; today, about 45,000), there simply were not enough practicing Catholics to support the 15 churches in Niagara Falls.
One of the many problems with closing churches is what to actually do with them once they are closed. “Twinning” parishes, “clustering” churches, alternating Masses between two different church buildings — along with trying to have a religious congregation, society, or order take over the title, taxes, and upkeep of closing parishes — are all fraught with the same single issue that won’t go away: Which churches get closed and which ones survive? The answer is deceptively simple: The viable ones stay open. But what about the churches that close?
Mary Holland, a Buffalo native, had a new idea about how to save, if not the parish proper, at least the church building itself. The Diocese of Buffalo had closed St. Francis Xavier Church on the west side of Buffalo in the Black Rock district in 2007, and in 2008 she bought it — along with the attendant school and campus.
But that wasn’t all. Holland preserved the stunningly gorgeous Basilica-style church by re-envisioning it as a “religious arts center.”
In doing this, Holland, the founder and director of the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, didn’t merely keep the doors open to St. Francis Xavier — she also created a safe space for sacred art. Many former Buffalonians have returned to revive memories of growing up in their beloved German parish.
“When I purchased this church, it was completely empty,” noted Holland. “Everything you see now was either purchased or donated [from other closed churches or synagogues].”
Holland said the first step was to preserve the building, followed by collecting the artwork. “When I went around to all the other closed churches, I kept wondering what would happen to the statues and other artifacts.”
There’s a real international feeling to the center, and that’s by design — literally. “The murals were done by a Bavarian artist named Br. Raphael Pfisterer, a Benedictine monk. The Stations were the work of a Dane. And the entire church was populated by Germans!”
Holland said the organ — a Herman Schlicker Opus 2 (a truly massive work of art itself) — still works, and the center hosts concerts. In addition, weddings may be celebrated. “Tours [for $10] help keep us afloat, along with many benefactors, too.” These benefactors include everyone from individuals who wander in to an M&T Bank who helped subsidize a book about the center in 2015.
One of the great things about the Buffalo Religious Arts Center is the sense of restraint. In the hands of a lesser curator, the building may have just degenerated into a sort of catchall of “religious goods” donated by well-meaning but indiscriminate art lovers.
“We have different displays at different times,” noted Holland. So instead of taking in every single piece of religious bric-a-brac, “I have to be very selective about what to, first, acquire and second, to display.”
The result is fascinating. “The church’s original stained glass windows depict the Stations of the Cross — which is a rarity — and are signed twice.” Indeed, there are a couple of different types of Stations on display: “We have an art deco version of the Stations, painted in oil,” said Holland. “Also, we have the more traditional plaster-relief Stations — with Polish captions — and a set of Stations in copper by the Rambusch family of Denmark.”
Holland also said the center has a collection of baptismal fonts, tabernacles, altars, processional crosses, altar railings, stained-glass windows, Divine Infant of Prague, bells, holy books, and, of course, statuary. “Obviously we don’t put everything out at one time — there would be no room to move!”
One item in the sacristy was something I’ve never seen in any church: “It’s an incense closet,” Holland told me. Indeed, the steel-lined closet held several censers and thuribles that could be lit by piped-in natural gas and then placed back into the closet while still burning (the closet door itself was lined with metal, too).
Holland is indeed ambitious, and that’s a good thing to be when beautiful old churches close. “One of the challenges about these wonderful old churches is that they cost a tremendous amount of money not only to up keep, but the everyday repairs and wear and tear,” noted Holland. “On the plus side, these churches were built to last!”
Holland may seem a bit of an optimist, but for the past nine years she’s been putting her money, energy, and know-how where her good intentions are. “We sponsor school trips for kids of all ages to come and see our center. Some don’t know what an old church looks like.”
One of the blessings of St. Francis Xavier Church is that because it was designed and built by European immigrants and artisans, there’s a real feeling of being in Bavaria — especially when you see the murals and the Latin lettering that surmounts the sanctuary.
Now, not everyone can afford to buy an old church and turn it into a religious arts center. That said, what Holland has done is not some selfish collector’s closet, but a diocesan repository for fine religious art. If only one — just one — closed church in each diocese were designated as the “religious arts center,” perhaps there would be less acrimony over whose church was closed (and whose saved) and more of a sense of communal sharing.
While no one wants their childhood parish to close, keeping a church building open is not the same as keeping the church-as-parish open. “Obviously the holy relics and altar relics have been removed. We are not a ‘church’ proper, and we don’t pretend to be,” Holland said.
Holland, who spent 25 years away from Buffalo, wanted to return to her hometown. She said, “What I am doing now is not so much for ‘now,’ but for 100 to 200 years from now, so that people will visit and celebrate the lives of the Europeans who came to Buffalo seeking a new life.” And it is important to keep in mind that “these very immigrants, despite their poverty, found it important to build a beautiful, lasting church as a testament and thanksgiving to their faith.”
Clare Hans, a parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Church from 1955 until its closing who now volunteers at the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, said, “While I was sad, of course, when they closed my parish, now it’s like going home again. Just to be able to go back inside the church is a blessing — and to share the memories and the new artwork with visitors and tourists is very special.”

BEYOND BUFFALO

In distances that one can easily drive in a day from Buffalo are two other similar museums: the Museum of Divine Statues run by Lou McClung in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Ohio (MuseumofDivineStatues.com), and the Jubilee Museum in Columbus, Ohio (JubileeMuseum.org).

MUSEUM OF DIVINE STATUTES

Lou McClung, a makeup artist with his own cosmetic line housed in a former Catholic school building, bought the closed St. Hedwig Church in Lakewood in 2011. While not associated with the Diocese of Cleveland, McClung said, “I do restoration artwork across the country, and I thought it was important to remember where all of these statues came up. The art represents the immigrants and all their hard work and sacrifices that made these [now closed] parishes possible.”
Cleveland, like Buffalo, suffered a rash of inner-city closings (about 40 churches were shuttered).
“It’s one thing to save the artwork and display it — but it’s quite another to restore statues to show how they were intended to be seen in the first place,” McClung noted. “So I take in statues that have been painted and re-painted, and it’s our job to re-store them.” Also: “When you see the photos of the parishes where so many of our statues have come from, you have a better sense of place, and of meaning.” McClung knows and shares the provenance of each piece he works on in his Museum of Divine Statues.
Like Holland, he has to be selective: “When we take in art, we make a decision whether this will be something that our museum will display in the next few years — or is it just not museum quality, in which case we donate it to someone who can and will use it.”
McClung said the museum started with the intention of saving the artwork of the closed churches of Cleveland, but lately it has been receiving more artwork from all over the country “which is really exciting. In fact, we are doubling the size of the museum and moving into the school building, which is next door. There we are building a Gallery of Saints.”
Moving forward, McClung said, “In addition to tours and school field trips, we hope to have day retreats, Confirmation preparation, as well as drawing classes, thus returning the statues to their original intention: prayer, meditation, contemplation, and inspiration.”
“Accompanying each statue is not only the history of which parish it came from and who made it, but the story of the saint’s life, too,” McClung noted.
Despite many donations of statuary, McClung said, “We’ve had to purchase most of the work in our museum. And while we are growing, we are building a community around the museum, as we are not part of the diocese, properly speaking. … However, none of these goals are attainable without the generous support which we are still actively looking for.”

JUBILEE MUSEUM

The Jubilee Museum in Columbus, Ohio, is somewhat different in that it is not in a closed church (mercifully the Church of the Holy Family is still open), but in a former high school.
Shawn Kenney, the executive director noted that “our museum was founded by Fr. Kevin Lutz in 1998, and has the three-fold mission [of] restoring art to sacred use; catechizing through the museum itself; and keeping the Catholic mission alive through a living memorial.”
The museum differs both from the Buffalo Religious Arts Center and the Museum of Divine Statues in that it is very much officially part of the Diocese of Columbus, under the guidance of Bishop Frederick Campbell, and it was founded by a diocesan priest, who remains on the board of trustees.
The Jubilee Museum is located on the second floor of the old Holy Family High School, which closed in the early 1960s and whose first floor is a soup kitchen. “We’ve expanded from one to 22 rooms,” Kenney said.
The collection is both Catholic and catholic: The museum has a 1501 Missale Romanum, an 1808 Jacob Ditto land grant signed by Thomas Jefferson, the vestments of America’s first bishop (John Carroll), and a necklace from Mary, Queen of Scots, all of which make up part of its permanent collection.
The museum also has three pipe organs, a second-century Roman spear, a clutch of papal bulls, 350-year-old priestly vestments donated by Franciscans from the Holy Land, prayer books signed by St. Padre Pio and St. John Vianney, and more than a few relics.
Like Buffalo’s Religious Arts Center and Cleveland’s Divine Statuary Museum, “Most of our visitors are tourists, though 60 to 70 percent of them are not Catholic, Kenney said. “Part of our mission, too, is to educate people about their faith and the history of American Catholicism.”
Unlike Buffalo and Cleveland, which had massive Catholic immigrant populations (that later dispersed to the suburbs), Columbus is a landlocked metropolis-meets-farmland that also boasts the state capitol.
While Kenney said that “we change our exhibit displays every six to eight weeks,” there are also some “seasonal favorites — especially our 300 different Nativity scenes that come out at Christmastime.”
Joanne Cormack, Holy Family class of 1958, concurred, noting that “going back to the Jubilee Museum is always like a sort of homecoming. … I’m so glad Fr. Lutz kept the school building alive and vibrant. My favorite time of the year is at Christmas when they display all the many various manger scenes.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about all three of these sacred places is that they are located only hours from each other, and all came into being independent of the others. But they all share the same overarching and underlying vision: to save what is sacred and transmit it to generations to come.

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