Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 3 – May 1999
Rescue, Restoration of Sacred Images Begins at the Grass Roots
by David Aaron Murray
The primacy of the Eucharist does not in any way justify arbitrarily stripping church-established worship of the sacral and aesthetic forms that surround it and present it to the people of God. Such a course would do more than cast aside the elements of art gracing divine worship; it would trivialize the meaning of the mystery celebrated, undermine the principles of community prayer, and could lead ultimately to doubt or even denial of the reality of the sacrament of the Eucharist.
Pope Paul VI; Address to an Italian congress of diocesan liturgical commissions, January 4, 1967
[DOL #539; p. 1355]
The story of the loss of the Church’s artistic patrimony during the iconoclastic years of the sixties and seventies has not been fully told, and perhaps each diocese and region has its own version of the story to tell.
The Sacred Congregation of the Clergy recognized the seriousness of the situation in 1971, when it released the Circular Letter Opera Artis on the Church’s artistic heritage. The Congregation noted that
It grieves the faithful to see that more than ever before there is so much unlawful transferral of ownership of the historical and artistic heritage of the Church, as well as theft, confiscation, and destruction disregarding the warnings and legislation of the Holy See, many people have made unwarranted changes in places of worship under the pretext of carrying out the reform of the liturgy and have thus caused the disfigurement or loss of priceless works of art.
The Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], devotes its seventh and last chapter to sacred art, declaring that
[t]he Church has always regarded itself as the rightful arbiter of the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, with reverence, and with honored traditional laws and are thereby suited for sacred use. [Ch. 7, §122]
SC § 25 opens by directing that "[t]he practice of placing sacred images in churches to that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained" before it cautions that "there is to be restraint regarding [the] number and prominence [of sacred images] so that they do not create confusion among the Christian people or foster religious practices of doubtful orthodoxy."
Similar language was incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law (Canon 1188, Title IV):
The practice of exposing sacred images in churches for the veneration of the faithful is to be retained. However, these images are to be displayed in moderate numbers and in suitable fashion, so that the Christian people are not disturbed, nor is occasion given for less than appropriate devotion.
The Code also provides that "the written permission of the Ordinary is required to restore precious images needing repair: that is, those distinguished by reason of age, art, or cult, which are exposed in churches and oratories to the veneration of the faithful" (Canon 1189).
Like other directives of the Second Vatican Council, the provisions on sacred art have not always been followed, or have been subjected to various interpretations.
Up to the present day, the reduction or actual stripping of figurative art from U.S. churches has been a frequent feature of "renovations" according to the principles of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship [EACW], the 1978 statement of the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, which has served as the de facto norm for renovations and construction for the past two decades, and which is to be replaced by a new document currently being written.
Decades of Demolition
Stories still abound of "renovated" churches being stripped of all figurative imagery.
In one case, parishioners of a small church in an upper Midwest state begged the bishop to allow them to take home the statues which had been removed because a liturgical/architectural consultant found them to be a "distraction" from Mass. They were allowed to take home the statues, and the renovation proceeded as planned. Two years later, the statues began reappearing one by one in corners and niches in the renovated church building. Today, they are almost all back.
Other stories have less happy endings. In one rural parish, men of the parish battered the stone communion rail to pebbles with sledge hammers and used the resulting gravel on the driveway.
Those who think that "iconoclasm" is too strong a word to apply to what has happened to many parish churches throught the United States in recent decades should talk to Father Matt Mitas or Monsignor Sal Polizzi of St. Louis.
Both priests have been extensively involved in efforts to rescue church artifacts and furnishings which were sold, given away or even needlessly destroyed.
Father Mitas, in an article in Ecclesiastical Preservation Exchange newsletter (1997-8), observed that
The most recent iconoclasm has happened in our time. It was occasioned by the Second Vatican Council, and it, too, was caused by some fairly crazy ideas. In the changes after the councils some mandated by the Council, many others not a lot of things got turned inside out. Many things that had been universally accepted as beautiful and appropriate for Catholic worship and devotion were deposed, discarded, and in too many cases, deposited in the dump.
In the late seventies and early eighties, Monsignor Polizzi was involved in efforts to raise money for Catholic Charities by retrieving and auctioning off furnishings from closed churches.
Some items, like pews, prie dieux, even confessionals and stained glass, were open to public bidding; but the sale of sacred vessels, vestments and altar cloths was restricted to priests and parishes. Many of the successful bidders were poor churches from rural parishes in Missouri’s Bootheel that could not otherwise afford altar linens, chalices, ciboria, or censers of the same quality.
Monsignor Polizzi’s rectory at St. Roch’s Church is filled with objects he rescued from closed churches or picked up at auctions, including a heavy brass 7-branched candlestick he repaired himself. The two winged angels 5 feet high, which today spring from St. Roch’s choir loft, came from one of these auctions, and the arched frames around the mirrors on the walls of the church hall were rescued from the confessionals of a closed church.
Sacred Images — "Just Things"?
How would Father Mitas respond to priests who have little sympathy for people’s attachment to church artifacts because "these are just things"?
He admits that there were times in the Church’s past when some people’s attachment to sacred objects reached the level of superstition. But in an interview with the Adoremus Bulletin he insists that one cannot divorce sacred objects from their associations: "It’s not just the things, but what they stand for. Yes, things are things; but wouldn’t you get upset if someone kicked over your mother’s tombstone?"
Sacred objects also carry part of the communio of the worshipping community with them, putting churchgoers in touch with the greater Church community which includes the departed. A life-size Spanish crucifix, originally from St. Charles Borromeo, the first Italian parish in St. Louis, restored by Michelle Dumey of St. Louis, was discovered to be over 200 years old. The crucifix now graces the St. Louis soup kitchen of Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
The removal of sacred objects breaks the communion between previous and present generations and creates a felt void that cannot be filled by "horizontalist" innovations designed to center the congregation’s attention only on this particular community, worshipping here and now. Monsignor Polizzi tells of an Italian parish in St. Louis in which a new priest’s desire to get rid of an old statue aroused the antagonism of the parishioners. "These people’s grandfathers had carried this statue from the old village in Sicily", he said, and they viewed it as belonging to the entire community, not simply at the disposal of the pastor.
Desecration of Sacred Objects
A sore point for both priests — and for many local Catholics — was a pizza restaurant in St. Louis that had bought and installed church furnishings, in contradiction to the instruction in Opera Artis that "when it is judged that any such works [of art] are no longer suited to divine worship, they are never to be given over to profane use."
Says Father Mitas, "Over in the corner was a confessional, now used as a phone booth. Above the drinking fountain was a beautiful mosaic of the Crucifixion. On the wall was St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, in the act of adoring the Sacred Heart, now creating ‘atmosphere’ for the consumption of deep dish pizza." Another downtown bar used carved wooden confessionals as booths and to form the bar itself.
The situation was accelerated in the early eighties when a large number of parish shutdowns and transfers of priests in St. Louis created many vacant churches, some of which were sold with all contents included.
Father Mitas remembers one church, St. Augustine on St. Louis’s North Side, which was sold to an evangelical storefront church. "I stopped by to see what we had left", he says, "and was astonished to see that we’d left everything" except the sacred vessels. The new owners held an auction to realize profits from the items.
This scene, together with the spectacle of the pizza restaurant, led Father Mitas to approach Archbishop John May to ask if something couldn’t be done to salvage and store church artifacts and furnishings until they could be placed in other churches. Thus was established, in 1983, the Archdiocesan Reclamation Project, which Archbishop May asked Father Mitas to head.
Father Mitas is the first to acknowledge that keeping up old items often requires work. "In a strange way", he reflects, that pizza restaurant, which at least restored the items, "paid more homage to the artistic value of these things than some of our own people."
Father Mitas also tells of occasions when parishioners destroyed items, not in a spirit of iconoclasm, but to prevent them from being given to profane use. The large solid oak Gothic pulpit of one St. Louis church was chopped up and burned in the parking lot for this reason, he says.
Destruction Leads to New Profession
Has this wave of destruction abated? While there is scant evidence that the current iconoclasm is on the wane, it has led to a new profession restoration of damaged and salvaged images.
One example is Restorations Plus, begun by Michelle Dumay in 1988 in St. Louis.
The items Michelle Dumey sees in her restoration business suffer mostly from neglect and age. But she still gets customers who have rescued objects from the dumpster.
Dumey never intended to devote her life to restoring sacred art. Her path to her present vocation led her through many twists and turns, guided by prayer. She was initially drawn to social work and volunteered for the Special Olympics, but was afraid that the total dedication such work required would conflict with her desire to have her own family. A job with a photo restoration firm led to an assignment restoring statues, and a new and absorbing interest. After spending six years learning the business at a restoration shop, Dumey struck out on her own.
At one point, when the fledgling business didn’t seem to be doing well, she prayed for God’s will to be shown to her. Shortly afterward, a woman acquaintance came into her shop with an order and said, "Michelle, I don’t know why, but I’m supposed to tell you that you’re doing exactly the right thing and that it will all work out." Immediately, says Dumey, a burden was lifted.
Since then the Dumeys have had much favorable publicity, including several stories in the local daily newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In time, her husband, Michael, left his delivery business to join her restoration efforts, turning the small shed behind their shop into a workshop. (The Dumeys’ shop is called Antiques and Angels, and occasionally they get a customer who simply wants to buy an antique, but Restorations Plus consumes most of their time.)
Mrs. Dumey estimates that eighty percent of her business is refurbishing statues from churches. About a quarter of the older statues are made of painted wood; the rest are plaster. The Dumeys did restoration work on the Stations of the Cross for Archbishop Justin Rigali’s private chapel before the recent visit of Pope John Paul II to St. Louis.
The rear of their shop is crowded with statues in various states of finish and repair. Most striking are two images of the scourged Christ, one a restored original and the other a reproduction, which depict Jesus covered with many bloody wounds. Only twelve of these unique statues were made in this country, she says. (Not unlike some Hispanic images, the statues are graphic enough that Mrs. Dumey covers them when her 5-year-old son, Christian, is playing in the shop.) An anonymous patron has commissioned replicas of the scourged Christ to foster renewed devotion to the sufferings of Christ. One adorns the private chapel of a convent of Passionist nuns in the area.
Careful Craftsmanship Required
The Dumeys respect the high level of craftsmanship and finish that went into these older plaster statues, though the techniques of the past can sometimes be improved by using modern materials. The Dumeys much prefer plaster to the resin or fiberglass that most statues (since about the 1940s) are made from, because plaster permits a degree of detail that resin and fiberglass cannot match.
If the extent of the work required is great, restoration of an older statue can cost up to $250 a foot. Nevertheless, Mrs. Dumey recommends professional restoration rather than attempting do-it-yourself repairs or re-painting. Many of her lengthier jobs require removing repairs or painting done by well-intentioned but untrained people.
Restorations Plus also makes reproductions on commission. Michael Dumey has learned how to cast latex rubber molds for this. He pours modern gypsum plaster (stronger and lighter than earlier plasters) into the mold, then, using a hand-turned machine he invented, rotates the mold, letting gravity and centrifugal force push the plaster into the mold’s crevices. He then shapes the folds by hand. The drying process is crucial, he says, and largely determines the quality of the final product. The hollow statues are much lighter than they look. Mrs. Dumey says they hope to get the weight of a statue down from 80 pounds to 50 or 60. (They also accept unused statuary in exchange for restoration services.)
The Dumeys view their work as an apostolate as well as a business. One of their goals is to keep art intended for church settings in those settings.
Restorations Plus is located at:
5427 Virginia Avenue
St. Louis, Missouri 63111
David Aaron Murray interviewed the Dumeys at their studio.