“Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men.” So wrote the second-century Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (not a saint, but widely regarded as a Church Father) in his book Who Is the Rich Man that shall be Saved?
It seems that Clement’s wisdom has been taken to heart in the Arlington Diocese. Many a new or growing parish has practiced recycling, up-cycling and adaptive reuse of church furnishings and art that come from churches built more than a century ago in northeastern cities.
The disappearance of the old churches is sad — population shifts have forced urban dioceses to close or consolidate parishes, while many old structures become too expensive to maintain. As the pastor of St. Ambrose Church in Annandale, Father Andrew Fisher observed that these churches were built by immigrant families at great personal sacrifice. Yet when some of their fixtures come back to life in new structures, it’s a bit like organ donation — the tragedy of an accidental death could provide a life-saving organ to another person.
The Catholic population is booming in the diocese. Along with newly commissioned pieces, new churches and their pastors and architects are finding ways to use old religious art as “riches not to be thrown away.” Parishioners who work to relocate this art are true heirs of the faithful immigrants.
Labor of love in Potomac Falls
The recycling trend got a boost with the dedication in 2006 of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls. Father William P. Saunders, pastor, found bronze bells that date to1888 from Our Lady Help of Christians in Pittsburgh, a former Italian parish that closed in 1992. Parishioners located stained-glass windows from St. John the Baptist Church, a German parish in Elmira, N.Y., and additional windows from St. Vincent de Paul Convent Chapel in Plymouth, Pa.
The imposing Stations of the Cross are recast from original pieces in the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle in Harlem. That parish was founded in 1889 for Irish immigrants, then replaced by Germans and finally it became largely African-American. Built in 1907, the church was renowned for its fan vaulting and German stained glass, but has suffered diminishing attendance and is now threatened with demolition.
The marble reredos — the decorative screen covering the back wall of an altar — came from a convent near Buffalo, while the altar came from St. Anthony of Padua Church in Philadelphia.
Other diocesan churches followed suit. St. John the Apostle in Leesburg, dedicated in 2012, incorporates stations recovered from a Philadelphia church, the magnificent high altar and reredos made by craftsmen from Pietrasanta, Italy, were found at Sacred Heart Church in Vailsburg, a neighborhood of Newark, N.J., that closed in 2010.
The railings for one of the side altars came from Immaculate Conception Church, a magnificent Victorian Gothic revival structure built in 1906 in Johnstown, Pa., where ethnic German Catholics, working in the city’s Iron Works, mills, mines and breweries, once worshipped. Several parishes were consolidated in 2009, and Immaculate Conception, no longer a church but still possessing its magnificent organ, has reopened as a reception and event facility.
St. Ambrose in Annandale is building a new church that will incorporate stations from a church in Pittsburgh, stained glass windows of the 10 mysteries from 1887 in Our Lady of the Rosary in Philadelphia, and a rose window from Anchorage, Alaska. Our Lady of the Rosary was consolidated with two other parishes and ultimately closed in 2014.
Father Fisher described the architects of the new church as “thrilled” to be able to incorporate these elements into the design right from the start.
The stained glass windows made for these churches in Munich and Innsbruck a century ago are especially precious because the craftsmanship is all but lost today. In Philadelphia, Beyer Studio painstakingly restores the old windows, using new non-mercury materials and making new glass panels to replace ones that have been lost.
The windows, statues and altars that adorn new diocesan churches are not only uplifting in their beauty, but as Father Saunders stresses, “truly catechetical.” It is a blessing to recall that for a whole century, faithful Catholics have received communion, prayed the stations and recited the rosary inspired by these very same artworks.
Hamerman is a freelance writer from Reston.