Protecting Your Church Treasures

By B. Gunar Gruenke
Published in Church and Worship Technology - February 2009

If something happened to your treasures, could they be replaced?

Each year, fires, hurricanes, tornados and floods cause millions of dollars of damage to churches across the country. A fire may have started by accident from a vigil candle or perhaps on purpose by arson. Whatever the cause, the evaluation of the claim can have major consequences for a congregation.

Precious Relics
A precious relic is built into the altar that is permanently attached to the floor. Is this considered personal property or part of the building? For decades, altars, statuary, tabernacles, baptismal fonts, Stations of the Cross and valuable historic light fixtures are grey areas for insurance policies. What about the ornate chalice in the sacristy or the ostensorium with precious gems? The murals, once attached to the walls, have been removed and installed in frames to prevent water damage. Are these items covered? A rare, turn-of-the-century, Italian nativity set is stored in the basement. Each of the 17 pieces is hand-carved and 20 inches in height. The pieces are ornately painted, glazed in multiple layers and adorned with gold-leaf. There are only three of these sets known in existence. If something happened to these treasures, could they be replaced? How do we ensure these items are covered? To avoid a catastrophe in the future, these questions must be answered before a disaster happens.

Stained Glass
Stained glass can be one of the most overlooked precious assets of a church. With costs ranging from $100 to over $2,000 per square foot, it is not uncommon to see hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stained glass in some churches. Some worship spaces possess millions of dollars in stained glass treasures and some contain priceless masterpieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany or John LaFarge.

Be Prepared
Should disaster strike, it is imperative to be prepared. This requires a thorough record of your space and treasured objects. Meticulous documentation is the best way to ensure that you can replace what has been lost. Every painting, every stained glass window, every sacred vessel should be recorded with high quality photographs and detailed shots. Dimensions, materials, written descriptions and methods of assembly should be noted. A complete inventory list that includes all of the documents should be stored in a secure location off site.

Restored or Renovated
If the church was recently restored or renovated, the costs of the various services are a good place to begin. Perhaps new carpet has been installed, or a fresh coat of paint was applied. Copies of these contracts can assist in rebuilding a space.

Do Your Research
When replicating a historic stained glass window that was destroyed by a fire, be sure to research a qualified studio. Does the studio have extensive experience restoring stained glass? How long have they been in business? Do they stand behind their craftsmanship? Do they employ the best techniques that ensure quality and longevity in their work? A qualified studio will be able to interpret photographs allowing the artists to match the trace lines and shading. Lead lines can be replicated and colors can be matched. Having this information available can mean a new window does not have to be interpreted from a blurry wedding photo taken in the 1950s.

Original Record
When available, a record of the original artist and/or studio can be very valuable for an experienced glass studio. They may have artists that have actually restored many of this window style in the past and are familiar with the various techniques used by the original artist.

Inventory List
The inventory list should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis comparing the value of the items to corresponding replacement costs. Religious goods supply organizations or specialty church studios can provide accurate appraisals. This important documentation should be included and attached to the insurance coverage. Ensure that the church has sufficient coverage to replace its treasures and take the steps necessary to document them accurately. Advance preparation now, will save time and money in the future.

B. Gunar Gruenke is one of the family owners of 119-year-old, internationally known Conrad Schmitt Studios. He is the President of the Stained Glass Association of America, serves on the Board of the Western Great Lakes Chapter of APTI (the Association for Preservation Technology International) and is a member of the American Society of Appraisers. For additional information, feel free to e-mail him at

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