‘S-HERTOGENBOSCH, Netherlands (Reuters) - When Christianity fades, it doesn’t just leave empty pews behind. With each church that shuts, the statues, crucifixes, chalices, paintings or vestments that were part of regular Sunday services suddenly have no liturgical home.
In the Netherlands, where faith has faded more dramatically than in many other parts of Europe, two churches close down on average every week. The sacred art left over is piling up in cellars and storerooms around the country.
Some congregations elsewhere have the opposite problem. New Catholic and Protestant churches are springing up in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and pastors in eastern Europe are seeking to refurbish churches used for decades as warehouses or factories.
A pioneering network of Dutch religious art experts, concerned by the accumulation of objects with both artistic and spiritual significance, has been struggling to match some of their supply to this new demand.
Thanks to their work, a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Dominican Republic now boasts a marble altar from a church in Eindhoven that is being turned into a health centre.
Another Catholic church slated to become a municipal library and theatre has donated pews, statues and crucifixes to a church in Lviv, Ukraine, that was used as a gas mask factory during the communist era. A Dutch Reformed church has donated a silver communion set to a Protestant parish in Romania.
“If we have something we can’t use, there is nothing better than to know it is being used in another church,” said Rev Martien Mesch, who has sent truckloads of surplus items to Ukraine from two Catholic churches he had to close down in the town of Vught, near the southern Dutch city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.
Eugene van Deutekom, diocesan archivist and historian for the Catholic diocese headquartered in this southern Dutch city, said surplus objects should be transferred if possible to churches still in use and valuable ones donated to museums in the Netherlands.
But if there is no place for them at home, the experts help closing churches donate this heritage to the growing number of churches abroad who have asked for everything from fine gold and silver vessels to heavy wooden pew benches.
“We give parishes a way to find a good second life for sacred objects,” van Deutekom explained. “If an object was made to be used in the liturgy, I want to keep it in the liturgy.”
The religious aspect makes this work unique in the art world.
“I‘m not a fine arts dealer,” said van Deutekom, stressing even simple statues could have special meaning for the faithful. “My interest is not in the economic value of an object, but its devotional value.”
The steep drop in religious practice over the past half century and the population shift towards the more secularized cities are two main factors driving the phenomenon.
“Catholic Church attendance here was the highest in Europe, over 90 percent,” said Rev Jan Stuyt from Nijmegen, where he is part of a team choosing which churches to close in the city.
“Now it’s down to French levels,” the Jesuit priest said, meaning under 10 percent. “That’s the Dutch way of doing things - all or nothing!”
Surplus sacred art is a bigger problem for the Catholics because specially blessed sacred objects play a larger part in Catholic liturgy and devotional practices than in the more austere Protestant churches.
The world’s largest church has also experienced a global shift. In 1900, two-thirds of Catholics lived in Europe, but now two-thirds are found in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
From 1970 to 2008, 205 Dutch Catholic churches were demolished and 148 more converted into bookshops, health centers, restaurants, apartments or other uses.
Marc de Beyer, curator of Utrecht’s Museum Catharijnecovent, the national museum of Christian art, said the resulting oversupply of religious art prompted church and national heritage officials to organize a Year of Religious Art in 2008 to draw attention to the problem.
One result was a guidebook to help closing churches assess the value of their art and find other owners for it. Interest has spread among church heritage experts across Europe, so an English-language version is now being prepared.
De Beyer gets 2 or 3 offers of surplus religious art every day. “We hardly accept anything at all now,” he said. “Our storerooms are full and, more importantly, we already have most of the objects that are being offered.”
The Museum for Religious Art in Uden, near ‘s-Hertogenbosch, has a basement full of storage shelves with old statues and other items. “We’re getting lot of things now from people who clean out their parents’ homes and don’t want to throw them away,” said curator Wouter Prins.
Several of the seven Catholic dioceses have art experts who work together to place surplus items in new parishes.
In March, van Deutekom and Evelyne Verheggen, the religious art expert from Rotterdam diocese, brought three shipping containers full of Dutch pews, statues, an altar, a church bell, a lectern and other objects to a cathedral and church in the Dominican Republic.
A parish in Indonesia has requested a full church interior, one in Brazil wants an organ, another in Uganda needs priest’s vestments. Churches in Argentina, Congo, Cameroon, Mozambique, Philippines and Tanzania are asking for other items.
The end of communism has brought requests from East European churches expanding after decades of oppression. Parishes in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland have asked for art and vestments. The Serbian Orthodox Church has inquired about relics dating back before the Great Schism of 1054.
Churches are often reluctant to give cherished items away. “When you give an object to another church, or a church in another country, it’s like someone donating a heart or another organ,” said Verheggen.
“You give it a new life in a new place. This is what I tell them,” she said, adding that using the guidebook for assessing religious art often helped parishes figure out what to do.
A major problem is that the churches, which have to maintain existing buildings and even build some new churches, don’t have money to send surplus items abroad. Part of the challenge is finding generous benefactors to pay the transport costs.
Highlighting how tight funds are, ‘s-Hertogenbosch diocese informed van Deutekom in late April that it would cut his job this summer in a budget-tightening measure.
De Beyer hopes current efforts at finding new uses for these objects can be improved, possibly with a website as a clearing house to better match supply and demand.
But the 150,000 religious items expected to become surplus will probably be far more than the churches can handle.
“In 10 to 15 years, we will get so much art that it will be difficult to send it all abroad,” van Deutekom said.
The experts are wary about selling surplus objects because families that donated them to the Church would be offended to see them up for sale. The risk of sacred objects being put to inappropriate uses - as ornaments in clubs or discotheques, for example - also discourages them.
But the surplus could grow so large that they may be forced to consider other solutions.
“If new owners can’t be found, we should think about destroying them in a respectful manner,” he said. “This will always be the last option.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall