Canada losing ‘soul of a people’ with selloff of religious heritage
PIn an age of cynicism, nothing is sacred and everything is for sale. Religious artifacts are being auctioned off to private collectors in the United States and Europe, writes
JENNIFER GREEN. The trend has some asking, ‘If this religious heritage is valuable for the Americans, why not us?’
riests’ robes used as paint rags. Magnificent church carvings tossed out for garbage collection. Gold and silver altarware melted down. Chalices for sale online.
In the past few decades, Canada has lost an untold amount of its religious heritage, as churches have sold off artifacts, either unaware of their value or desperate for funds to cover maintenance costs. Nobody can really put a dollar amount on it, but priceless, hand-carved altars and statuary have gone to private collectors in the United States and Europe. Some have even gone to Canadian museums.
Less ornate Protestant churches have had fewer items go missing but they are still vulnerable.
In the wee hours of a September morning in 1993, thieves pulled up with a truck to the 130-year-old church of St. Thomas in Gatineau and stripped it bare. Even its plain glass windows were popped out and carted away.
Police scouted local flea markets, but had no luck locating the stolen goods.
Over the next decade, the elderly congregation pieced together another organ and more furniture, only to have all the altar appointments — cloths, silverware, and a chalice — stolen last year. This time, the vandals also took the honour rolls of parishioners who fought in the First and Second World Wars.
In Britain, skyrocketing copper prices have spurred vandals to strip the roofs off 1,800 churches in 2007 alone, causing three million pounds damage. Some vicars are slathering roofs with slippery paint, while others are using a high-tech chemical that tags stolen metal. Some are even sleeping in the sanctuary.
In the southern U.S., thieves are overrunning graveyards to nab tombstones, prized for their ornate craftsmanship and Tiffany stained glass insets.
It’s official: nothing is sacred. In fact, it’s all for sale.
“It fits into a larger trend of thefts of what I call cultural heritage,” says Katja Zigerlig, director of art insurance for AIG private client group. “In the last 10 years, we are seeing more audacious kinds of thefts.”
Thieves can go to a church or synagogue and photograph potential targets with cellphones. They research the items online, and, if it is worth it, go back and nab it without much difficulty. They can then market the pieces on auction sites such as eBay. The goods move out of the area, making it that much harder to trace. Buyers who might be squeamish about an antique tombstone from, say, Fitzroy Harbour, could be more comfortable with something from Louisiana. Neighbours would be less likely to realize that the new coffee table was once Great Aunt Viola’s headstone.
Says Ms. Zigerlig: “On eBay, it will sell for much less than it’s worth, but there is no way of tracking the provenance.”
Not that many people would care. Darcy Ilich picks up most of her religious items at vintage fairs for her Vancouver design shop, The Cross.
“The large crosses do really well.” So do the heart-shape black metal plaques from French graveyards with the deceased’s name and dates of birth and death. “It’s funny who buys this. It’s often people who grew up in a faith, but don’t necessarily practise it now. ”
Has anyone ever admonished her? “Not yet.”
Brendan Hamtil, owner of the online business Fynders Keepers in Kansas, sells religious objects for tens of thousands of dollars, acting as a broker between parishes that are closing, and parishes that need religious goods. A marble carving might sell for as much as $33,000.
Mr. Hamtil, a practising Catholic, insists that items used in the mass must go to a church — and he checks the cre- dentials.
Would that all internet traffic was so pure. Houses of worship have always been easy targets. Many once left their sanctuaries open night and day. They were hallowed ground. Surely, even a thief would hesitate to steal from God.
For most denominations, that sense of awe has dwindled in the past few decades. Congregations have dwindled too, meaning churches are closing. Stained glass donated by bereaved families or altar cloths embroidered by church ladies may be irreplaceable in one sense, but unusable in another.
For the Catholic Church, the new liturgy of Vatican II accelerated the problem.
In the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council reformed how Catholics would worship. Frills and furbelows were out; modern Christian art was in. The priest would face the people during mass instead of turning his back to them. For many churches, that meant tearing out the old altar, usually fixed to the wall, and installing a free-standing altar.
In 1962, Joseph-Henri Gariépy, parish priest at l’Ange-Gardien on the shores of the St. Lawrence River near Beapré, Que., decided to do some housecleaning. The parish was one of the oldest in the province, founded in 1644, and had a lot of “old-fashioned things” that he sold for about $800: two sculpted Madonnas in gilded wood, six candlesticks, 10 others carved in wood, one sculpted wood crucifix, three statues of saints, two chalices, a censer, incense boat, vials for Holy Oils, a solid silver stoup (or holy water bowl), two cruets, and a baptismal ewer. Unbeknownst to the priest, many of these objects were made by renowned artisans, and were worth at least $100,000.
Benoît Pelletier, now Quebec’s minister for intergovernmental affairs, was a University of Ottawa law professor when he wrote an academic paper about the case. He said the pieces were sold to antique dealers who passed them along to private collectors, including the Musée du Québec, and the National Gallery of Canada.
In 1976, the church council of l’Ange Gardien took the original buyer to court, saying that, under Quebec law, religious objects are not subject to commerce. The church won, but the museums fought on, fearful of a precedent that would empty their display cases. Curators pointed out that impoverished parishes could not provide enough security, insurance and climate-controlled display for these works of art.
The National Gallery tried to take the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada but was turned down. Finally, all the items were returned.
The case showed how “the religious, political and administrative authorities turned a blind eye to these dealings,” said Mr. Pelletier. “(It) resulted in the end of the ‘bleeding’ which in, the past, emptied churches of their treasures and which enriched so many museums and personal collections.” Or did it? Just a few years ago, a Montreal antique dealer paid $100,000 for the stained glass, benches and lights from St. Julien du Lachute. American interests bought the package from him for an unknown sum, and purpose.
Heritage activist Michel Prevost says: “Most of the people think that this era is over but it continues even today. If this religious heritage is valuable for the Americans, why not us?”
L’Abbe Claude Turmel, one of the founders of the province’s Conseil du patrimoine religieux ligieux, has long agitated for preservation of religious artifacts.
“We don’t have castles (as Europe does). We have churches. Every kind of art, we find in the churches. It’s history but it’s also the soul of a people. Some people are disposing of them when they shouldn’t, even politicians, and bishops and government workers ... but they will not say so openly.”
He says it’s the same worldwide, especially in other areas where traditional Catholicism has been driven underground. “Going behind the Iron Curtain ... it’s possible to buy everything.”
He and several colleagues went to Mexico to discuss preserving Catholic artifacts, but the bishop there would not even receive them.
Msgr. Kevin Beach, in the Ottawa archdiocese, says Ottawa, as a frontier town, has had less sumptuous items for thieves to covet. But it is just as serious when something goes missing, especially anything to do with celebrating mass, such as the chalice and the ciborium, which holds the hosts.
Unfortunately, these are often lined with gold, making them particular targets for people who want to make a fast buck by melting them down, says Rev. Bill Burke, acting director of the National Liturgy Office with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Others steal it because they like the way it looks, and they think it will look nice on the shelf in the living room.”
But some people responded to Vatican II by surreptitious intervention.
“Some people had tremendous affection for certain statues or other objects, and they saw that it would not be properly used, so they took them home and kept them where they would be treated reverentially.” That’s the sort of lightfingered faith that many parish priests would wink at, he says.
“A lot of things were done by people who had very little background and knowledge of art and ... it’s importance in worship. I saw some wonderful mahogany and oak wood, torn out and replaced by plywood. I have seen frescoes painted over.”
Still, the small thefts seem the saddest. Not far away from St. Thomas church near Gatineau, someone shattered the minister’s office window at St. Stephen’s Anglican church in Buckingham and took the the original chalice. Rev. Don Tudin says ruefully that the parking lot is often used for drug deals.
Ron McDermid, St. Thomas’ warden, says: “You really do wonder about people. You get downhearted but you just have to hang your hat on next year’s peg and keep on going.”
Ron McDermid is a warden at Gatineau’s St. Thomas church. In 1993, thieves stripped the building of its contents, including the church’s stained-glass windows.