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Creating, preserving sacred spaces
A local firm specializes in liturgical design and creates a niche in a crowded secular world.
Dave Borowski | Catholic Herald
Courtesy Photo
A recovered tabernacle waits to be cleaned and restored by Sacred Spaces artisans.

Not long after Michael Carrigan retired from the Smithsonian Institution in 2004, Father John Cregan, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria, asked the former executive at the National Museum of American History to serve as chair of the church renovation committee. During his long government career, Carrigan was considered an expert in the renovation and restoration of public spaces.

That appointment, and the work involved, piqued Carrigan’s interest in liturgical design. Not long after chairing Father Cregan’s committee, he founded Sacred Spaces in Alexandria to help build new Catholic churches, renovate existing ones and preserve the art and beauty in churches that have been deconsecrated. One of the last elements of the Blessed Sacrament renovation was the installation of a 14-foot crucifix created by artisans from Sacred Spaces.

“It’s beautiful art,” Father Cregan said.

The company conforms to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s “Built from Living Stone” guidelines issued in 2000 as a guide for architects and engineers when designing or redesigning Catholic churches.

Carrigan said that church renovation makes up about two-thirds of his business; the rest is new design and the removal of sacred art.

Sacred art removal is a bittersweet proposition. On one hand, beautiful pieces of church art are recycled and given to parishes looking to renovate . The church makes a donation to the offering diocese, which can use the money for other diocesan needs. But there are consequences. For a variety of reasons, dioceses are closing churches around the country and with the closures, parishioners are losing an important part of their community.

“It’s very difficult,” Carrigan said. “People’s lives were centered around their church.”

There are happier jobs, Carrigan said. Parishes come to Sacred Spaces wanting to make a change. The church may need items cleaned or restored, or they want to put in an addition.

When pastors or church committees approach Sacred Spaces they often say they want to be more traditional.

“What does that mean?,” Carrigan will ask them.

It doesn’t mean the grandiose Gothic architecture with gargoyles and buttresses. It’s a more contemporary traditional.

“What they usually mean is traditional elements in a clean space,” Carrigan said.

The elements of the traditional include statues, carved wooden Stations of the Cross, old stained glass, chalices and even vestments. Some of the elements can be found in the existing church, where Carrigan’s company cleans and restores them, or in churches that need to let go of some of their art.

Carrigan works to find a home for the orphaned objects. According to canon law, these sacred objects cannot be sold to a non-Church entity.

Carrigan told a story of a church that was deconsecrated. The church was sold to a developer and most of the sacred objects were removed, except for two side altars.

The pastor found out that the person buying the building wanted the two side altars to remain — for a bar. The sale was stopped and the altars removed.

Sacred Spaces employs 12 full-time staff, many of them artists and artisans. They find artists in many diverse places.

“We get people off the street who come in and show us their art. A lot of it is great stuff,” Carrigan said.

He also finds artists in Europe, which has a long tradition of artistic expression.

Carrigan was in Florence on business recently, walking on his way to a dinner. An artist had a beautiful, large painting for sale on the street.

“I’m going to dinner,” he told the man, “if you’re still here when I get back I want to talk to you.”

The man was there later, and Sacred Spaces soon had a new Italian artist on contract.

The ancient art of restoration is moving into the digital age, or at least the sharing of the wealth is. Sacred Spaces is developing a Web site to help churches recycle their sacred objects. The site will allow churches wanting to “downsize,” or dioceses needing to recycle sacred art and objects, to put them up for donation on-line.

It’s not like eBay. There’s no instant checkout. Carrigan said that all sales must be cleared by ecclesiastical authority to ensure the objects are going to a proper place by canon law.

In addition to work for Blessed Sacrament, Sacred Spaces has created a custom crucifix and other work for Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls.

Not all of his commissions are liturgical. Louisiana State University asked Sacred Spaces to create a mural of their football team. The job didn’t pan out.

“They couldn’t afford it,” Carrigan said.

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