The steep drop in Dutch religious practice over the past half century has forced many Catholic churches to close, leaving a growing surplus of their religious artwork piling up in the cellars.
EINDHOVEN, THE NETHERLANDS (APRIL 13, 2012) (REUTERS) - With two Dutch churches closing on average every week, surplus statues, crucifixes, chalices and paintings are piling up in the cellars and storerooms of Roman Catholic parishes around the country.
But outside Europe, there is a different situation. Poor parishes in Latin America, Africa and Asia are trying to get their hands on traditional Catholic artwork to equip their churches.
For years, the diocese of s'Hertogensbosch and Eindhovenegan were trying to find a new religious home for everything from fine gold and silver vessels used at Mass to heavy wooden pews no longer in use. Now a cathedral in the Dominican Republic boasts a marble altar from a church in Eindhoven, whilst its former home is being turned into a health centre.
The man behind the transfer of artwork is diocesan archivist and historian Eugene van Deutekom, who said it is not always easy to give new life to a former church.
"It's very easy to turn a church into a library, a bookstore, perhaps a restaurant, but sometimes it is very hard. For instance, some people feel uncomfortable having dinner in a former church, especially when they are confronted with all kinds of religious material still available," he told Reuters in the large nineteenth century church of an Augustinian monastery, set to close in a few years time.
The changes in the Netherlands are part of a larger global shift -- in 1900, two thirds of the world's Catholics lived in Europe. Now, with the decline of the faith in Europe and its growth elsewhere, two-thirds of them are found in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Van Deutekom's work reflects that change. A parish in Indonesia wants a full church interior, one in Brazil an organ, another in Uganda has asked for liturgical vestments. Churches in Argentina, Congo, Cameroon and Tanzania need vessels for Mass such as chalices, patens and ciboria. Other requests have come from the Philippines and Mozambique. Last month, van Deutekom, who studied church art management at the Vatican's Gregorian University, travelled to the Dominican Republic with three shipping containers full of Dutch pews and statues, an altar, a church bell, a lectern and other objects for a cathedral and church there.
"We brought to Dominican Republic a shipment of benches, candlesticks, vestments, some statues, because we have lots of them because closing of the churches and the church over there was very poor and they needed the material and there was some contact and we were very happy to give these objects to Dominican Republic. Why? Because the objects are still in use in a church," van Deutekom said.
The steep drop in Dutch religious practice over the past half century has forced many Catholic churches to close, leaving a growing surplus of their religious artwork.
The total of Dutch Catholic churches stood at 1,782 in 2003, fell to 1,644 by 2003 and is estimated to sink to 1,200 by 2018. From 1970 to 2008, 205 Catholic churches were demolished and 148 more were converted into bookshops, health centres, restaurants, apartments, among other things.