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Monday, June 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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As old city churches close, what becomes of fixtures and sacred objects?

The Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. — The altar was old. It was ornate. And it was on the gambling floor of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

James Lang was startled when he saw it there. Lang, vicar of parishes for the Roman Catholic diocese in Syracuse, had a chat with the manager about desecration. The altar eventually was removed.

"They thought it looked cool," Lang remembers.

It also looked like part of a growing phenomenon: Religious artifacts are migrating as America's shifting population leaves empty churches across the Midwest and Northeast. In March, New York City's archdiocese recommended shutting 31 parishes, and Boston has closed almost 60 in three years.

So, chalices appear in antique-shop windows. A confessional turns up in an Italian cafe. A stained-glass window of St. Patrick lands in a pub. And don't even start with eBay.

People who deal in such artifacts say interest in them is growing.

And while some are troubled by secular reuse of religious items, they may be encouraged about a different set of collectors: new churches in booming suburbs and in the South and West that are reaching for the relics of an older generation.

From 1952 to 2000, hundreds of thousands of Catholics left the inner cities, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Philadelphia, for example, lost 198,000, but nearby Bucks County picked up 234,000. Detroit, Baltimore and Boston saw similar urban-suburban shifts.

Meanwhile, the South and West boomed. Los Angeles County added 3.4 million Catholics, and the counties that are home to Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Miami and San Antonio grew by more than 400,000 each. The Seattle Archdiocese has experienced particular growth among Hispanics.

In Lubbock, Texas, Holy Spirit parish is building a new church for a congregation that has grown from 30 families to about 700 in seven years. Its pastor, the Rev. Eugene Driscoll, grew up in Philadelphia, where his old parish closed in 2004. He asked the diocese if he could rescue some pieces of his past. Now, among other items, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima from his old school stands in his Texas prayer garden.

Every month, a downtown Philadelphia warehouse is unlocked to reveal about 2,000 items from closed area churches. Those in the religious community can browse among marble statues, altar pieces, candlesticks and tabernacles, or thumb through racks of vestments.

"We try to have it as tastefully arranged as possible," said Ed Rafferty, who handles the warehouse for the diocese. Private individuals are not allowed.

Some dioceses use dealers to help place objects in other religious locations. Some don't specify where items should go and let the dealers decide.

"We're an equal-opportunity seller," said Stuart Grannen, owner of the Chicago-based Architectural Artifacts, whose Web site boasts religious artifacts as its newest category. Recently listed were a carved oak bench from a Minneapolis church for $12,000 and a marble Ten Commandments from a Milwaukee synagogue for $3,800.

The Web site of Georgia-based King Richard's Religious Artifacts offers everything from antique crucifixes to gold-plated sprinklers for holy water. Owner Rick Lair says he has worked with dozens of churches in upstate New York.

An altar from a downsizing Buffalo convent found its way to Our Lady of Hope, a church in northern Virginia that opened in January. Through architects and dealers, the Rev. William Saunders decorated with items from churches as far away as San Francisco, including windows from a German-built church in Elmira, N.Y. His hand-carved marble altar came from the Philadelphia warehouse, for just $500.

"We were the first to do this in our diocese," Saunders said. "Now others are starting."

Some dioceses destroy items if another church won't take them, so they don't fall into private hands.

"We don't want to find an altar railing in a bar," said Sister Regina Murphy, director of research and planning for the Buffalo diocese. "Or a confessional in a restaurant. People are kind of aghast at that. So we dismantle it completely."

The Rev. Pat Butler, an Albany-area priest, wishes there were a national clearinghouse for religious artifacts. He worries about how much is being lost or desecrated.

He recalled once visiting a Missouri home furnished with an altar and church candlesticks bought at an auction. The owner explained how she'd also wanted a certain gold box for her jewelry.

"I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up," Butler said. He asked her to describe it. The box was a tabernacle, the enclosure for consecrated hosts, often kept at the center of the altar.

Though that troubled him, Butler encourages reuse by churches. He once received a windfall himself.

About 150 years ago, Irish immigrants built Gothic-spired St. Joseph's Church in downtown Albany, but over time it declined and was finally abandoned and sold for $1. It is now in the hands of the Historic Albany Foundation.

A few years ago, Butler — helping to design his new church, Christ the King, in suburban Guilderland, N.Y. — expressed interest in St. Joseph's fixtures after learning that the diocese couldn't afford to remove them.

Now, some former parishioners of St. Joseph's who worship at Christ the King notice familiar details from the old downtown church, including marble statues, Gothic arched doors and a 1913 wooden pulpit.

"They're like our family pictures," Butler said. "When you move, you take the pictures off the wall and move to the next place."

An appraisal of the items Butler salvaged and worked into the design came to $900,000. He got them all for free.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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