Vandals and the Church’s Material Culture

Catholics once upon a time recognized the need to devote the best to God

As undergraduates at St. Mary’s College in Orchard Lake, Michigan, we were required as part of our core curriculum to take a course in art and/or music, and “Introduction to Humanities” fulfilled the requirement. I’ll admit that, as a 19-year-old, I wasn’t excited about the class and it didn’t help that it was taught Wednesday nights from 7-10 pm (the instructor worked at the humanities-renowned, now defunct Cass Technical High School in Detroit). Three hours of slides in the dark at the end of the day didn’t keep people awake. My international travels at the time were limited to Windsor, Ontario, which rendered pictures of Rome, Athens, Paris, and Vienna mere abstractions to me. What was I going to do with this stuff in theology?

My perspective changed when I went home for Thanksgiving, took a camera, and shot pictures of the then-extant nine parishes (before the Diocese of Metuchen “renewed” them into four) in my hometown of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. I got the pictures developed as slides. The next Wednesday, we spent an hour in class looking at them and that’s when my eyes opened. I learned the strange bell tower steeple on St. Mary’s was a variation on the Gothic style (“Irish Gothic”), that Holy Spirit’s little porticos over the door weren’t just utilitarian rain roofs but features of neo-classical architecture, and that many other churches bridged many styles eclectically. I realized: these abstractions are also in my backyard.

I make that observation because of an article [here] in The New York Times reporting that a Pennsylvania antiques collector bought two stained glass windows from a closed Presbyterian neo-Gothic Revival church in Philadelphia. Some fundamentalist Protestants had bought the church and were redecorating, undoubtedly applying their own eclectic of Calvinist whitewash and 1970s felt-banner-craft. They wanted the windows out. The collector bought them because he thought they were pretty. He discovered they were Tiffany originals, each worth about $250,000.

Why note this? The Western Roman Empire was beset by various and successive hordes of Vandals who brought down that civilization. Unfortunately, one can argue something similar about the Catholic Church in the modern West. Immediately after Vatican II, many parishes were beset by liturgical Vandals. The fifth century had Visigoths and Ostrogoths; the twentieth century had Anti-goths, who never saw a neo-Gothic parish church they didn’t feel the need to gut, I mean, “renew and renovate.”

With a kind of curious application to the Church of the sociological Hansen’s Law (a thesis about immigration and acculturation that claims that the third generation tries to remember what the second generation wanted to forget about its immigrant heritage), starting in the 1990s parishioners began restoring what the liturgical Vandals destroyed. Artwork nobler than second grade finger painting began coming back to churches. Some pastors — like good stewards — found parish treasures hidden in the church basement or rectory attic. Most importantly, tabernacles began returning to the center of sanctuaries.

We are now in Phase II of the Vandal invasions, except this time, it’s largely internally led. Vandal bishops and chanceries are patting themselves on the back for their “foresight” and “prudent stewardship,” in “renewing” local churches by closing them. When parishioners dissent from the carefully orchestrated “listening sessions” that chanceries run with the help of hired consultant “strategic planners” to provide cover for the diocesan demolition derby, they are told the Church must “move on” and cannot remain “sentimentally attached” to buildings and locales.

Well, there are reasons that St. Peter’s was built (and rebuilt) on Vatican Hill, that Our Lady wanted her shrine where “peace-loving native” Aztecs used to sacrifice human beings, and why churches were often constructed to replace previous pagan shrines. It’s all about “location, location, location” (and not just in terms of the price His Grace can exact for the parish he’s selling off). Having long been attached to Europe, I understand the lament people make that they can go and see the church and font where their great-great-great-great-grandfather was baptized in Poland or Macedonia, but can’t find where their parents were baptized or married in Pennsylvania or Michigan because bishops who inherited assets built by immigrants’ nickels and dimes cannot sustain them now that Catholics of their ethno-religious “ghettos” have supposedly “made it” in America.

But I want to go back to the material culture aspect.

Our churches represented efforts to devote resources to the aesthetic worship of God. Perhaps sometimes the works were kitsch, but more often than not people did not spare expense to make their parishes beautiful. It would be an injustice to imagine “the Kiczula Family” put that money into that window because they wanted their name on a brass plaque under it. They did it, first and foremost, because they did not spare costs to make God’s House beautiful, even if they did for their own.

I imagine that instances of Catholic Tiffany windows are very rare, but has anybody written the history of the Church artisans — architects, window-makers, statue makers, marble workers — who built the Catholic Church in the United States in the 19th and 2oth centuries, an era when ordinaries preferred to be known as “brick and mortar” rather than “lock and leave” bishops? Do we even fully know what we have before we lose it? (I am sure lots of clergy friends don’t, having slept through Mr. Noyer’s Humanities class on Wednesday nights because, after all, how important is “this stuff” to theology?)

As our parishes are felled by the current leaders purporting to “renew the face of the earth” (or at least their dioceses), how much of our material culture is being lost and what is being done to prevent that? Should I be so impertinent as to ask if this is not the revenge of the first Vandals who, not always able to raze ecclesiastical art and architecture to conform it to their aesthetic, are finally able to get rid of it?

There are reasons — and not just to block bishops — why Catholics have turned to local and state landmark and preservation rules to block episcopally-hired wrecking crews, and part of that is the material culture that is being lost.

There are reasons — and not just to challenge the vacuous babble from clerics about the need to “declericalize the Church” — to ask whether, in terms of the sell-off of that material culture to generate assets, we might revisit the “trusteeship” question. Perhaps canon law needs reform to say (at least in democratic countries) that no bishop should be able to dispose of real property without consent of a mixed financial body in which lay persons not subject to episcopal at-will appointment or demotion hold a majority.

Churches’ beauty was created not to provide a “churchy” environment where, along with piped-in canned chant [here], one can have an “aesthetic” experience after paying a visiting fee (as is not uncommon in some parts of the world). Their beauty was created because Catholics once upon a time recognized the need to devote the best — including our material best — to God. We cannot let that material and cultural heritage simply be abandoned or discarded. Even if we don’t inadvertently hand off a Tiffany to an antiques collector.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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