The Camden Catholic diocese has begun merging its parishes in a process that will close almost half of its 124 churches throughout South Jersey.
The Camden Catholic diocese has begun merging its parishes in a process that will close almost half of its 124 churches throughout South Jersey. The second merger in Gloucester County became official this week. The diocese is now facing a new challenge: what to do with all the extra stuff.
Father Tom Newton is overseeing the merger of two Catholic churches in Cherry Hill. The congregants of Queen of Heaven are joining those of St. Peter Celestine. To make the displaced parishioner feel more at home, Newton installed Queen of Heaven’s lectern, Bishop’s chair, and processional cross into St. Peter.
Newton: The people here at St. Peter Celestine get to keep a lot, because they get to keep their whole church. The people from Queen of Heaven lose their church. So it was important to try to incorporate as much as we could.
A church can always take on more congregants, but it can only take on so much more stuff. By adopting sacred items from a closed church, the already in-place lectern, chair, and cross have to be moved.
Newton: Some people here are like, that chair is made by somebody who used to be here. And I thought, they’re not here anymore, they both died. I thought the value of bringing the stuff from Queen of Heaven outweighed the value of holding onto this stuff.
It’s a problem the Camden Diocese has not had to deal with before. Until recently it’s a problem nobody had to deal with before. It was only 1991 when the Philadelphia Diocese created a program, the first of its kind, to inventory, store, and re-distribute art and furniture leftover from its closed churches. Monsignor Louis D’Dezzio says he doesn’t want to see one of his sacred statues end up as a centerpiece at a cocktail lounge.
D’Dezzio: When a facility is closed, we take out all the catholic identity of that facility, including statutes, altars, stained-glass windows, anything intimately connected with the practice of our faith, and place it in our facility so priests from the archdiocese can come and see if it’s of use to them.
The Philadelphia Diocese only allows objects to be sold to other Catholic churches, most often to churches within the diocese. Other denominations aren’t has stringent as the Catholics.
Joe Beyer is cutting a sheet of hand-blown stained glass imported from Germany.
He restores stained glass windows and he is very busy. A big part of his business is popping out stained glass from boarded-up churches in the Philadelphia area and re-installing them in new churches. Often in Southern states where, according to a Pew study, most religious activity in America is happening. Beyer says stained glass windows are the tail that wags the dog.
Beyer: Normally when you build a building – you would have an architect design the walls and a hole in the wall and someone would fill that hole. This was is the opposite, we start with what fills the hole, then the architect would design the wall and the church around those windows.
Beyer is working on a pair of windows removed from St. Peter’s Episcopal church in Germantown, which has been shuttered for over 4 years. Reverend Christine Ritter is the property manger of the Pennsylvania Episcopal Diocese. She says she is trying to sell St. Peter’s.
Ritter: Do we want to remove windows or allow them to be sold with property? Part of my concern is that some of the windows still at St. Peter’s were done by local Germantown artists.
Some windows were made by a prominent early 20th century illustrator named Violet Oakley. Oakley trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and they have over 2000 of her paintings and sketches in their collection. PAFA bought the windows for an undisclosed amount. Although they are not going to a religious organization, Ritter says the deal satisfies her concern that the windows will be taken care of.
Ritter: We do have a policy that we don’t want to hold onto items, we want churches to use them. We want them to go to another Episcopal church, but other denominations don’t want them because they express our theology.
National trends show the demographics of the faithful are shifting out of cities, so the art and artifacts in closed Philadelphia churches could wind up in religious hotbeds like Florida, or Texas.