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Voices Fall-Winter 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the excerpt of “Sacramental Artwork in American Churches: A Disappearing Heritage” by Marek Czarnecki here.
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Volume 29

Sacramental Artwork in American Churches: A Disappearing Heritage by Marek Czarnecki

The heritage of Roman Catholic churches in the United States is at risk, and with the razing and renovations of its parishes, a religious patrimony of artwork is being lost and destroyed. These structures, their furnishings, and their decorations provide Catholics with a sense of place, self, and sanctuary; the losses not only create a cultural vacuum but also affect their faith. Cited as a positive example, a parish in Amsterdam, New York, is among the few that have saved a richly ornamented historic church with all its statues, murals, and icons. The art and architecture have their roots in Europe, but as expressed in the New World, they assume a clearly American form—and are thus worthy of study and preservation.
A statue of St. Casimir, manufactured by Daprato in Chicago
A statue of St. Casimir, manufactured by Daprato in Chicago, stands ninety-six inches tall in the high altar of St. Casimir Parish, Amsterdam, New York. Restoration of the hundred-year-old piece involved stripping old paint, resurfacing, and repainting based on colors uncovered in the restoration. Photo: Marek Czarnecki.

In the sixth century, when the Church was deliberating the propriety of images, it declared that icons were not an option for teaching the faith—they were a necessity. Through its need to instruct and inspire mostly illiterate communicants, the Church became one the greatest patrons of the arts. Some fourteen centuries later, we can still see this in our Roman Catholic churches, both overseas and in the United States. The artwork in Europe is justifiably revered, yet here in North American one can begin to identify a specifically American Catholic artistic heritage, with its own unique characteristics. Much of it has been undervalued because it is derivative of European sources, of a lesser quality than its European prototypes, or mass-produced and considered kitsch. However, it is these very qualities that make it specifically American.

The American Catholic Church is imported, with European roots, founded by immigrants of the working class. Its architectural forms were not new but taken from regional European models. Each church was custom-made for its members, recreating a familiar liturgical and ethnic language, specific to each community. Working-class immigrants from Europe built their churches with meager donations, and the results reflect their economic station: plaster-molded statuary was used in place of marble or wood; paper prints stood in for oil paintings; and wooden surfaces were marbleized or gilded to give the impression of more costly materials.

This young nation had no Beaux-Arts academies to train artists skilled enough to decorate churches in the European fashion, no artistic language of its own. With the turn-of-the-century rush to build churches for the growing numbers of immigrants, many recent arrivals opened their own studio businesses to meet the demand of their communities as well as the needs of the nation. Demand was so great that typical American assembly-line processes were adapted to the artistic process: Many sacramental statuary factories opened across the United States. Like everything else in America, art for sacred places was made in factories, in a collaborative, industrial process. And in a very democratizing way, the mass production of sacramental art created a rare equivalence between artist and client: The workers who manufactured statues, stenciled walls, and leaded windows were the same people who donated money to buy these objects for their parishes, and prayed with them on Sunday.
Sanctuary of St. Peter's in New Britain, CT
The sanctuary of St. Peter’s in New Britain, Connecticut, was filled with devotional art when it was completed in 1875; its appearance today (below) is austere and abstract by comparison. Old photo: unknown; modern photo: Marek Czarnecki.

Sanctuary of St. Peter's, New Britain, CT

Lost to Progress

Within the past thirty years, the once-common sacramental artwork of those first-generation Americans—an integral part of the great panorama of American life—has become scarce. And it is not just the objects and buildings that are disappearing, but the subsequent living trails and histories of immigrants’ lives...

...Most of the oldest parishes were Irish, built at great personal and communal sacrifice; because of a language barrier, later-arriving non-English-speaking immigrants were discouraged from worshipping in the same sanctuaries. Frustrated and excluded, each immigrant group, of necessity, established its own parishes, with priests who were able to preach, hear confessions, and perform the sacraments in their parishioners’ respective tongues and who were sensitive to their ethnic devotions and pantheon of saints...

...As immigrant families were assimilated into the American mainstream and distanced themselves from their ethnic origins, the need for specifically ethnic parishes became less and less vital.

A good example of the phenomenon is in the American home of the Industrial Revolution, Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1927, Lowell had fourteen active Catholic parishes. One of its first Irish churches, St. Peter, built in 1890, was closed in 1980 as the neighborhood population dwindled. This church, which seated twenty-one hundred people, stood empty for nineteen years as the diocese and the city deliberated what to do with it. The leaded stained-glass windows, standing three stories tall, began to bow and fall out onto the street; neglected ceiling leaks became gaping holes. The city notified the diocese to either repair the building or have it torn down. After it was offered for sale for a dollar to anyone with a viable renovation plan (estimated at $3 million) and no buyers or alternative proposals appeared, the church was first picked apart by salvage companies, then torn down...
Nanadaptive Disuse

...A common pronouncement from the Roman Catholic hierarchy on such occasions is that a church is not a building, it is its people. When a parish closes, that community of people disperses into other parishes. Without our physical sites and signs, however, we forget who we are, and we lose the material objects that link us to a very deep, historical communal identity. In American culture, we lose our personal and transpersonal depth when the sites that ground us in our history and spiritual ancestors disappear...Instinctivey, with the demolition of churches, its members sense that the institution and its dogma are less than permanent, and in the hands of mercurial forces. How could a building like St. Peter’s in Lowell stand only a hundred years? The intent of its architects and its donors was that it last forever, not a mere lifetime.

The market for salvaged church goods is small, catering mostly to eccentric collectors and a subculture Catholic traditionalist movement. Sometimes devoted parishioners or the descendants of families that donated articles will reclaim them, but religious iconography does not cross over into a mainstream antiques market. Because most sacramental artwork in America was made of fragile, inexpensive materials like plaster, it lacks the commodity value to be placed in a museum or to attract a collector...

The diocese of Philadelphia has taken an innovative and, I think, sensitive approach to its church closings. One of its emptied churches is used as a warehouse for removed sacramental fixtures. For a minimal donation the articles can be resituated in another church anywhere in the United States. This ensures that the artwork is saved, and donors are assured that their offerings are appreciated and will be used in houses of worship.
The Dapatro Company's 1930 catalogue
The Daprato Company Statuary Company’s 1930 catalogue offered St. Patrick in a choice of sizes, finishes, and prices.

Whitewashed Blankness

Besides demographic and economic changes, another factor in the disappearance of sacramental artwork is the renovation of parishes to meet the standards of the Second Vatican Council of 1963. The council’s aim was to open wide the doors of the Church, to bring it into the twentieth century with an emphasis on the centrality of the Mass and the written gospel. "Paraliturgical" services—novenas, stations of the cross, Marian devotions, prayers to the saints, processions, the forty hours of devotion service, lighting of votive candles, and other popular practices that occurred outside the Mass—were deemphasized, discouraged, or even discontinued.
Mural of Lithuanian infantry led to victory by vision of St. Casimir
The sanctuary of St. Casimir is embellished with murals as well as statues. The Lithuanian infantry is led to victory by a vision of the patron saint of the parish. Photo: Marek Czarnecki.
Protests from parishioners notwithstanding, much of the statuary made for these acts of worship was placed in marginal areas (vestibules, entrance ways, stairwells, choir lofts), hidden away, or destroyed. Devotional side altars were also removed, and niches sealed over with drywall. Narrative murals depicting landmarks in the spiritual history of the founding members were painted over to create a more neutral, contemporary "contemplative environment." One can step inside a church with an 1890 cornerstone to find the once-vibrant and highly decorated interior stripped to its barest architectural elements, without any imagery. What was a defining characteristic of Catholic churches is now vestigial.
A mural of a dead child revived with help of St. Casimir
Another mural in the sanctuary of St. Casimir: A dead child is miraculously revived through the intercession of St. Casimir. Photo: Marek Czarnecki.
...A repercussion of this reductivist trend is the disappearance of religious pictures, statuettes, private shrines, and holy water fonts in the home, and connected with this, the acts of private prayer that accompanied them. The practice and forms of prayer are learned in public worship, then echoed in the home. With the removal of images, a Catholic can lose the immediacy of his faith, and a theology developed on the human personhood of God becomes impersonal and purely intellectual. When the saints’ images disappear, so do their stories and prayers.

Still another reason for the change of appearance in Catholic churches is a shift in the identities of church-going people. As Catholics assimilated into American culture, they no longer wanted to be identified as immigrant. Churches were remodeled to make them look more "American," and less working-class. Plaster statues in a European neoclassical style were replaced with modern wood or marble interpretations. Murals and decorative elements were neutralized to give interiors a more mainstream American look—like a New England Congregational church, or Shaker meeting house...
Models of Preservation

In the familiar paradox of preservation, it is in the parishes that are too poor to renovate or even afford upkeep for their sanctuaries that one finds still-intact churches. St. Barbara’s in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn boasts one of the longest church aisles in New York City, with mosaics, painted ceilings, and six diorama side altars...

Some examples of preservation and conservation serve as beacons. These parishes are aware of their significance, both to the local community and as remnants of a vanishing religious patrimony. One of the best examples of this is the Lithuanian parish of St. Casimir in Amsterdam, New York...

...The church had a turn-of-the-century sanctuary built without any internal posts to support its barrel-vaulted ceiling...[the parishioners] petitioned the bishop to allow them to raise funds to reengineer and renovate the structure. The vault was reinforced with steel beams, and after three years of work, the parish won a prize from a national architectural firm for its preservation work. The restoration continued with the interior surfaces, in stages, as funds were raised. Statues were cleaned, restored, and repainted for the first time since the church’s opening more than a century ago. In 2002, the ceiling was resurfaced, loose plaster removed, and the murals reconstructed and repainted...
Life-sized figure of Mary in St. Francis of Pittsburgh church
This life-sized figure of Mary exemplifies the high quality of plaster statuary produced by turn-of-the-century factories— in this case, Mayer & Co. Once in a prominent place in the sanctuary of St. Francis in Pittsburgh, the pietà has been relegated to a ledge over a radiator. Photo: Marek Czarnecki.
In Conclusion: An Appeal

...I ask readers to go into their own communities, see what treasures still exist, and think of these places as resources for the multidisciplinary work of folklore. Further study, discussion, and attention will contribute to the understanding, cultural weight, and value of these sites.

When faced with the closing or demolition of a church here in the United States, parishioners often say, "In Europe, they make places like these into museums. Churches there stand for hundreds of years." Why not here?


Marek Czarnecki is a liturgical artist who for the past fifteen years has been restoring, renovating, and creating new artwork for American churches. He lives in Bristol, Connecticut.

Without our physical sites and signs, we forget who we are, and we lose the material objects that link us to a very deep, historical communal identity.

A Portrait of the Artist

As a Polish American liturgical artist—not an anthropologist, historian or folklorist—I offer information that is more anecdotal than statistical. I speak from my experience in talking to hundreds of clients, visiting hundreds of churches, and meeting with their parishioners, and from my own observations within the Church as a practicing Catholic. I learned about beauty and art not from a museum, but from my parish church in Bristol, Connecticut. Attending church and being in its environment made me want to be an artist. I spend my time studying the variety of forms of liturgical art, its uses, and what makes it and American churches unique. I work to understand, preserve, and create meaningful art used within the context of worship, and to reeducate Catholics on its depth, meaning, and use.

—Marek Czarnecki

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Fall-Winter 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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