For Artifacts From Closed Churches, an Afterlife on Staten Island
Formerly a hub of the East Village’s Italian-American community, the site of the Roman Catholic church is now slated for a 158-unit rental building, complete with basement gym and rooftop gardens — a familiar trajectory for a growing number of houses of worship as church attendance falls and real estate values soar. In the rubble-strewn lot on Avenue A between 11th and 12th Streets where Mary Help of Christians and its school and rectory long stood, a rusty basketball hoop and strip of blacktop are all that is left. But perhaps unknown to those mourning the church’s passing, much of what was precious inside it — and other now-closed Catholic churches — sits in a Staten Island warehouse, awaiting a second chance.
At the warehouse are the rows of papier-mâché statues of saints that once flanked the pews at Mary Help of Christians, their brightly painted faces peering out from cloaks of Bubble Wrap. Nearby, wood and tin organ pipes are stacked like torpedoes. There are jumbles of votive stands and thickets of chandeliers, dismantled Carrara marble railings and quarter-ton church bells.
Some items ended up at the warehouse after the 2007 decision of the Archdiocese of New York to close or shrink 21 parishes. Others came because of renovations. Much more will be coming; the archdiocese plans to announce another round of parish closings in 2014.
The archdiocese has not always had an organized system for dealing with vestments, patens, candle drip guards and myriad other ritual objects when they are no longer needed. Before 2004, some ended up in antique stores or trash cans, while others went to parishioners or other churches.
Then there was realization that “these things, even if they don’t have great financial value, have historical value, or liturgical value, and we should preserve them,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese.
The man picked for the job, the dry-witted facilities manager, Kevin Shaughnessy, tells another story. He had heard a legend that his position was born after a bishop spotted on a barroom shelf an artifact from the church where he had started his priesthood.
The next thing he knew, “Tag, I was it,” Mr. Shaughnessy, 62, said.
Mr. Shaughnessy fashioned the warehouse from a decaying former dormitory for orphaned or foster children at the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin in Mount Loretto. He spends his days there mostly alone, carefully storing relics by type. Stained glass is protected by plywood frames and organ consoles are put together in a corner. A shelf gleams with brass chalices and ciboria. Tiny medals with pictures of saints are tucked into one of his old pill bottles.
I’m glad to see this is being done. My former parish was closed and the building demolished (it was in terrible disrepair). I know the altar and tabernacle were saved but I don’t know about anything else.