New Jersey church may finance ministry by selling its windows

April 18, 2007

At the turn of the last century, Elizabeth, New Jersey, was a thriving industrial powerhouse and the congregation at St. John's Episcopal Church reflected the city's success.

Wealthy professionals and industry captains filled its pews and their money filled its collection plates. A multimillion-dollar endowment was built and the church's most prestigious families commissioned 10-foot-tall stained glass windows from Louis Comfort Tiffany to adorn its massive stone walls.

Today, the church's 100 or so members don't come close to filling its 700 seats. The once-hefty endowment has dwindled, and there are often more people at the church's free Sunday meal than its 10 a.m. worship service. Donations from the congregation cover the utilities and little else.

Which leaves the windows.

Last month, the Rev. Joseph Parrish stood in the pulpit and told his flock the church was thinking about selling its five Tiffany windows to rebuild its endowment and carry on its ministry to the local poor.

And so St. John's may become the latest church to trade a bit of its splendor for a few more years of vitality.

"We're the biggest Episcopal church in the state and we're sponsored by one little congregation in a very modest income area. We don't have any executives of companies coming here anymore," said Parrish, the church's minister since 1989.

"They're beautiful windows, but they're also an asset that we have ... Depending how much they're worth, every window could keep us in business another two, three, four, five years."

It's a thought that makes some in Elizabeth's historical community shudder. With its skyscraping steeple, St. John's has stood as a Broad Street landmark since 1706, and some historians believe the windows should be preserved as part of the city's history.

"I understand completely the kind of temptation non-profits have when they have some kind of resources ... but if you have Tiffany windows, yikes, you've got to hang onto them," said Paul Mattingly, vice president of the Elizabeth Historical Society. "He's one of the great artists of American history."

The idea has also met resistance within the congregation itself. At a recent Sunday service, several congregants couldn't believe the church might sell one of its signature features.

"There are ways to raise money other than selling the windows of the church," said Rachel Savice-Larsen of Elizabeth, a former member of the church's vestry, or governing board. "This is a 300-year-old church. How would it look without stained glass windows?"

Lois Khan, a registered nurse from Woodbridge, agreed.

"This is what makes the church, the historic stuff. Are we in such dire straits that we have to sell the windows?" Khan asked.

According to Parrish, the situation is serious indeed. St. John's spends nearly $60,000 a year helping the poor in Elizabeth, he said -- from giving out groceries and clothing, to paying for medical exams and relocating people who can't seem to catch a break in New Jersey. But with less than $1 million left in its endowment, he said St. John's needs to do something drastic to keep those efforts going.

"If you just do services on Sunday and leave, you can conserve your money. But it just seems like that's not the right thing for us to do here," Parrish said. "People are living at the subsistence level and that's our parish, so we take care of the people."

Though heart-wrenching for many worshippers, historians and collectors say many old churches are beginning to view their windows as a pragmatic solution to financial woes.

Richard Marcello of Malibu, California, a Tiffany glass collector and proprietor of the web site, said he's in contact with 20 churches, including St. John's, looking to unload Tiffany windows.

"You have all these big churches that at one time used to have all these people, and now the building is 100 years old and the roof is starting to leak ... and they just don't have the money to keep it up," Marcello said. "Last year and this year we've gotten so many e-mails about windows for sale."

Ken Ward, a former secretary of the New Jersey Historical Society, said that in some cases it actually makes historical sense for old churches to sell their windows so they can be preserved and appreciated by a wider audience.

"They are historical artifacts, but if no one goes in to see them and appreciate them, then the reality is they can be desanctified and decommissioned and go to somebody who might have a use for them," said Ward.

While the windows have been valued for insurance purposes at close to $500,000 apiece, overtly religious Tiffany windows generally sell for less than $100,000 on the collector's market, said Donald Samick of J&R Lamb Studios in Clifton, New Jersey.

Two of the St. John's windows -- a portrait of a woman overlooking the ocean and a medallion-style window featuring two separate scenes -- would likely sell for more, and Marcello said he is personally interested in two other windows for a Tiffany wedding chapel he's trying to build on the Malibu coast.

Still, Marcello and Samick agree that even if all five windows sold, the church would fall well short of its $1 million goal.

Combine that reality with the apprehension already coursing through the congregation, and some church leaders are hoping to find another way.

"We have a television commercial now to bring in new members. We can do more outreach in the community," said Terrence Smith, a bank examiner from Elizabeth and member of the vestry. "The big question is once we've raised $1 million, $2 million and that finishes in three to five years, what happens next?"

-- Jonathan Casiano writes for The Star Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.

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