Canada los­ing ‘soul of a peo­ple’ with sell­off of re­li­gious her­itage

Ottawa Citizen - - Front Page -

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.

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