Parish Consolidations: Using Art and Artifacts

January 03, 2008


Cornerstone of Good ShepherdIn recent years, increasing numbers of new churches are being built as a result of parish mergers. This type of process is often difficult and involves not only welcoming something new, but also saying goodbye to beloved buildings and familiar ways of “being a parish.” Re-integration of existing art and artifacts into a new facility poses a real challenge. Letting go of familiar pieces can be difficult and met with resistance.

Some parish mergers involve the reuse of the largest or “best” building from the group of parishes that are being joined. Often though, there is no building of a sufficient size to accommodate the larger numbers of parishioners with a reduced Mass schedule. Even in rural areas, churches of a size more usually associated with larger cities and suburbs are being built as the smaller congregations are clustered together.

No two parish mergers are exactly the same, but some common activities may assist parishes that are in this process leading to a new single place of worship. The process often begins with the clustering of parishes into one while retaining separate worship sites. Usually a single pastor serves the cluster during this period of transition. Sometimes the naming of the “new” parish occurs. Hopefully, the liturgical life in the individual sites begins to unify the people through common planning. Individual parish councils may give way to a common parish council furthering conversation and leading in the direction of a common parish identity. At some point the decision is reached to build a new church and close the existing sites. A new process of planning can often follow very swiftly.

Record the Histories

A way to begin planning for something new, surprisingly, is to investigate the history of the parishes. Sometimes historical links – i.e. the “mother” church and her offspring are identified. The history of parishes and their buildings can be an education for all. Identifying perhaps a series of building and renovation campaigns in the past allows people to see more clearly that change is constitutive of most parishes – that they evolve or adapt to meet changes in circumstance. Creating a commemorative document is one way to value the past and preserve memories. Compiling photos and information also helps in determining significant artifacts that should be preserved.

Evaluate the Treasures from Each Parish

In the case of consolidations, retaining existing elements needs careful planning to avoid turning churches into parish museums. Deciding what imagery to reintegrate or to commission has a long lasting impact on the community. With any project, providing an overall vision of the whole becomes formation for the entire parish. One way to begin is to catalogue everything in each of the churches. Involve people from each site to photograph, roughly measure, and record any known information about each object. This information will help the planners evaluate what images, glass, vessels, furnishings and other artifacts might be important to use in the new building. Artistically important elements (along with more humble ones) need to be evaluated from liturgically and theologically informed viewpoints, as well, i.e., does the object in question serve the liturgical and devotional needs of the community now? Does this art represent the people of God who worship and are welcomed in this church?

Write an Art Program

Detailed art programs that include items from the existing churches and new elements to be commissioned, help a community see the rationale for what is being used and designed. An art program is a description of the overall plan for what will be present in the church and its auxiliary spaces. Sometimes to create “balance” for the first members of the combined parish, it is important to bring something into the worship space for each of the former sites. Creativity and care is needed to insure these elements are in harmony with each other and contribute to the enhancement of worship. Creating spaces and using historically important elements outside the church itself may be a more appropriate way to preserve beloved artifacts without having them clutter or overwhelm the church itself.

Letting Things Go

It is not uncommon in consolidations to “inherit” many duplicate elements. Sometimes the scale, style or quality level of what individual parishes have is not suitable for the new church that is being built. Carefully and realistically evaluating artifacts takes some time and may be assisted by consultants and experts familiar with the arts in question. Not everything can and should be saved. Decisions may be postponed until moving into the new facility in regards to using elements in auxiliary spaces. Concrete decisions about what will be used in the worship space are best communicated to parishioners early in the process for their understanding and comment in light of the overall plan for the church. Uncritical retention of objects without considering their actual impact on the community is not a positive choice for the future. Many times parishioners are able to let things go if they feel that the decision was based on positive principles. Additionally, what may not be appropriate for the parish may be valuable to someone else.


When the parish no longer needs some items, finding “homes” for them also can become a task for the planners. There are businesses designed to “recycle” used church items. Parishes may decide to sell unneeded items to help defray costs of new art or furnishings. Parishes may wish to find direct channels to other parishes or religious institutions to keep elements in the vicinity. Sometimes the decision to give items to another community that can use them is more true to the original intentions of donors if these items were gifts to the parish. Other emerging parishes, twinning parishes, nursing facilities, religious communities, etc. may have needs greater than their current resources and would welcome what is no longer needed. In one case, the gift of a set of small-scaled liturgical furnishings to a nearby nursing facility was a wonderful solution. When the parish faced the reality that these pieces would simply be too small in their new church, they wondered what to do with these somewhat recent and quite beautiful furnishings. As parishioners used and visited this nursing home, their gift “stayed in the community” and continues to enhance worship.

Importance of the Task

The experience of consolidation of parishes is difficult and sometimes traumatic for the people involved. Family and faith histories can be closely associated with the physical environment. Though most people will acknowledge that faith goes beyond buildings and “things,” hearts are often tied to familiar objects and environments. Architects, artists and designers may find it easier to begin completely “fresh,” but the incorporation of existing elements into the new building is often a necessary part of the program. Striking a balance and accomplished successfully, the familiar and the new can form an integrated environment that builds upon tradition towards a hopeful new parish future.

Mark Joseph Costello is a Capuchin priest living in Chicago. He works nationally as a liturgical design consultant. A graduate of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago with a Master of Divinity Degree, he also received a Master in Fine Arts in Interior Architecture from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

The photo shows the cornerstone of Good Shepherd Parish, Eden Wisconsin, which lists the parishes that were consolidated -- including two that were folded into the parish many years ago.  The stone is a testament to all the parishes in the Eden area.


Art as Identity
Enthroning the Book of the Gospels
Reordering Historical Churches

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