- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The altar was old. It was ornate. And it was on the gambling floor of the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas.

The Rev. James Lang was startled when he saw it there. Father Lang, vicar of parishes for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, had a chat with the manager about desecration. The altar eventually was removed.

“They thought it looked cool,” Father Lang remembers.

It also looked like part of a growing phenomenon: Religious artifacts are migrating as America’s shifting population leaves empty churches across the Midwest and Northeast. In March, the New York Archdiocese recommended shutting 31 metro parishes, and Boston has closed almost 60 in three years. So, chalices appear in antique shop windows. A confessional turns up in an Italian cafe. A stained-glass window of St. Patrick lands in a pub.

People who deal in such artifacts say interest in them is growing. And although some are troubled by secular reuses of religious items, they’re encouraged about a different set of collectors: new churches in booming suburbs and in the South and West that are reaching for the relics of an older generation.

In Lubbock, Texas, the Holy Spirit parish is building another church for a congregation that has grown from 30 families to about 700 in seven years. Its pastor, the Rev. Eugene Driscoll, grew up in Philadelphia, where his old parish closed in 2004. He asked the diocese whether he could rescue some pieces of his past. Now, among other items, a statue of Our Lady of Fatima from his old school stands in his Texas prayer garden.

The Web site of Georgia-based King Richard’s Religious Artifacts offers everything from antique crucifixes to gold-plated holy water sprinklers. Owner Rick Lair says he has worked with dozens of churches in upstate New York.

An altar from a downsizing Buffalo convent found its way to Our Lady of Hope, a Potomac Falls, Va., church that the Arlington Diocese dedicated in January. Through architects and dealers, the Rev. William P. Saunders decorated with items from churches as far away as San Francisco, including windows from a German-built church in Elmira, N.Y. His hand-carved marble altar came from the Philadelphia warehouse for $500.

“We were the first to do this in our diocese,” Father Saunders says. “Now others are starting.”

Some dioceses destroy items if another church won’t take them so they don’t fall into private hands.

“We don’t want to find an altar railing in a bar,” says Sister Regina Murphy, director of research and planning for the Buffalo Diocese. “Or a confessional in a restaurant. People are kind of aghast at that. So we dismantle it completely.”

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