Windows from closed church find new life among the dead

January 26, 2011

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) Crouched on a scaffold, Ray Clagnan gingerly tapped
his hammer near Saint James' feet, hoping to set them free.


Clagnan, a stained-glass expert, worked slowly, pane by pane. Soon,
he moved to Mary Magdalene, carrying away her resplendent image in four
pieces.


During a break, he marveled at the level of skill displayed on the
windows.


"You would never see decorations as elaborate and detailed as these
anymore," he said. "The painting in each piece, each frame, makes it
special."


For the first time in roughly 80 years, the saints and prophets of
Sacred Heart Church are on the move. But they will soon find new life
among the dead in an arrangement that one church official called "a
match made in heaven."


Tall and brightly hued, their depictions on 36 stained-glass windows
will be sent to three Catholic mausoleums by the end of this year. The
work marks the final chapter for the Italian Renaissance-style church
that was shuttered last June after years of declining attendance.


Hoping to salvage the hundreds of items left behind, church
officials have plans to reuse what they can, from the oak pews to the
Saint Patrick statue that now resides in a bar in South Orange, much to
the chagrin of church officials.


After extensive restoration, the windows -- worth $150,000 -- will
be placed in new mausoleums.


"We're not stockpiling this stuff," said Troy Simmons, the
archdiocese's patrimony project director. "We have an agenda to keep the
heritage living on."


Two trends are driving the transplant effort. As Catholic
populations dwindle, more than 100 parishes were asked to close in the
past six years, said Jim Goodness, an archdiocese spokesman. At the same
time, church officials have also started to build mausoleums at
cemeteries as land has grown more scarce.


The archdiocese wants to fill the new facilities with the same icons
worshippers came to love every Sunday in their churches.


"The idea is we have a lot of beauty and we don't want to see that
go to waste," Goodness said. "Parishes do cease to exist, but the
spiritual feeling is something that everyone wants to continue."


The restoration offers some comfort to former parishioners who are
still disappointed the church, once the anchor of a bustling
neighborhood, has shut down.


"The closing of the church is still a great loss to the community
and the end of the tradition," said James Zazzali, a former chief
justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. "But at least the physical
vestiges of the church will continue. That's some consolation."


Special attention will be paid to the windows, which most likely
came from a German studio, Simmons said.


Once the figures come down, Clagnan will take them to his studio to
be cleaned, a process that includes dipping the glass in horse shampoo.
The liquid is gentle enough not to scrub off the paint, Clagnan said.


If all goes to plan, the first glass could be in Maryrest Cemetery
in Mahwah by October.


"They are among the highest quality around today," Clagnan said.
"They are top of the line."