In 2008, the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., merged and consolidated 151 parishes into 104 and moved everything from the 47 closed churches into a warehouse. The following year, it began selling pews, kneelers, altars, ambos, vestments, monstrances, candleholders, stained-glass windows and more to other parishes. 

In the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, sacramentals and other religious artifacts from closed churches are for sale at through Henninger’s, a church supplier in Brook Park, Ohio. 

Acquiring artifacts

Like many dioceses across the country, Allentown and Cleveland are liquidating not only the property and buildings of closed churches, but also the contents. Selling bookcases and lamps are one thing, but selling sacred objects is restricted to reuse in parishes, chapels, religious communities, Catholic schools and hospitals or other diocesan-approved sites. 

St. Felix
St. Felix obtained the altar for its main chapel from the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. Photo by Paul Siegfried

Some dioceses, such as Allentown, are handling the sales themselves, except for stained-glass windows, which are being marketed by Beyer Studio in Philadelphia. Cleveland, which closed 50 churches in 2009-2010 (12 are reopening) contracts with a middle man, and some churches sell to businesses that warehouse the religious goods.  

“Nothing can be sold for use in any private way,” said Matthew Kerr, director of communications for the Allentown diocese.  

Statues, Stations of the Cross, altars and monstrances are the most sought from their inventory, and successor parishes usually have first choice. That, Kerr said, is a comfort to parishioners. 

Phil Haas, archivist for the Cleveland Diocese, agreed. “Anything, like a monstrance, sacred vessels or even furniture that had significance to the closed parish — like a statue of a saint from a nationality parish — can make it more welcoming at the new site,” he said. 

Neighboring parishes are usually second in line for acquiring artifacts from closed churches, then other diocesan churches, then churches and other approved destinations elsewhere. 

“A lot of it went down South, where a lot of building is going on,” Haas said. “And some of the chalices and sacred items were sent to our archives.”

Restoring older parishes

Sometimes churches are being refurnished after fires, floods or tornadoes. Most buyers, though, are transforming newer sanctuaries into something more traditional, or back to how it was before modernization. 

That was the case at Holy Trinity Church in Brainard, Neb., and St. John the Baptist Church in Wagner, S.D., which both purchased altars from Fynders Keepers Brokerage LLP, in Shawnee Mission, Kan. 

Brendan Hamtil, who started the business with $150 and the inspiration of helping a priest find an antique altar 12 years ago, doesn’t keep a warehouse, but links buyers and sellers. 

“Half are people building churches and the other half are restoring their churches to pre-Vatican II configuration,” he said. “There are priests who are assigned to modern churches and want to give a sense of tradition, so they buy antique pieces that gives them a sense of historical preservation.” 

Years ago, the original altar and architecture of St. John the Baptist Church was removed, leaving it “plain and bare,” Father Richard Baumberger said. The parish purchased an ornate white altar that had been in St. Patrick’s Church in Fond du Lac, Wis. 

“Our church is 101 years old, and it looks like it was made to fit,” he said. “It’s so perfect and it fills up the sanctuary. It just enhanced our church immensely and makes it look more like a holy place.” 

Decorative painting and additional statues completed the restoration. 

Father Matthew Eickhoff wanted a gothic-style altar for Holy Trinity Church, and Hamtil found one at St. Stanislaus Church in Berlin, Wis. The acquisition had a couple of other perks. 

“I had six months to get ready for our centennial celebration in 2009, and it would have taken 18 months to have a high altar custom built,” Father Eickhoff said. “And we paid $25,000 for the one from Fynders Keepers and put another $25,000 into it. A reproduction would have cost $300,000, so it was a huge savings.” 

Holy Trinity, like many old churches, had been stripped of its original grand architecture. Many, he said, were thrilled to see it now looking more like the church they grew up in or were married in. The restoration also included a matching sacramental altar built by a parishioner, eight original statues and four others purchased through Hamtil. 

“It looks like every aspect of the décor was created together, but it wasn’t,” Father Eickhoff said. “We just made it look that way.” 

Interest in traditional

Holy Trinity
The high altars at Holy Trinity Church in Brainard, Neb., came from St. Stanislaus Church in Berlin, Wis. Courtesy of Holy Trinity Church

High altars and matching side altars are most in demand at King Richard’s Religious Antiques, which has two warehouses in Atlanta, Ga. Stained-glass windows are the next big item. 

“If people can find something that fits the needs of the parish and everybody agrees on, they’re going to save a lot of money,” salesman Joseph Copp said. “A nice [used] marble altar averages $35,000, and new, it would be from $400,000 to $500,000.” 

Cost isn’t the only incentive to purchasing antiques. In the aftermath of modernization, there’s a trend to return to tradition. 

“There’s a generation of new priests coming up and parishioners who are seeing the value of what the church had in the past,” Copp said. “There’s more and more interest now in traditional things.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.