As Dutch churches shut, their sacred art finds new uses abroad
When Christianity fades, it doesn’t just leave empty pews behind. With each church that shuts, the statues, crucifixes, chalices, paintings or vestments that were part of regular Sunday services suddenly have no liturgical home.
In the Netherlands, where faith has faded more dramatically than in many other parts of Europe, 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 centre.
Another Catholic church slated to become a municipal library and theatre 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 this 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.”