In the Netherlands, 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 center.
Another Catholic church slated to become a municipal library and theater 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 the 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 toward 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!”
Report from Vancouver Sun