Some Churches Go Electric, Pull the Plug on Wax Votive Candles

Times Religion Writer

Rows of wax votive candles, usually flickering in an alcove under a statue of a saint, have been a traditional sight in Roman Catholic churches.

With roots in the ancient custom of lighting candles in fulfillment of a private vow (votum), the candles are lit today as a sign of continuing prayerful thoughts. Donations, or “votive offerings,” also are customary.

But the candles tend to blacken walls and ceilings with soot and, for some churches, create a potential fire hazard.


Increasing numbers of parishes are introducing electric candles, complete with “flickering flames,” as substitutes.

San Marino Parish

One of the latest to install electric candles was the San Marino parish of Saints Felicita and Perpetua. Msgr. Lawrence J. Gibson cited fire safety, cleanliness and time. “It will take less of our manpower to maintain,” he said, adding that he has heard no comments since the candles were put in place about a month ago.

Most manufactured votive lights are lit by pushing a button on top of the candle unit. Some are ignited when a coin is dropped into a slot. The whole unit is plugged into a wall socket. Each candle “burns” for seven hours in the model purchased by the San Marino church from an Escondido firm.

Parishioners have not always taken to this twist on tradition.

“I didn’t like it. I felt it was too ‘80s,” said Maggie Adams of West Hollywood, who said she saw some at a parish in another city.

“I didn’t feel the warmth, the closeness of God, that you have with the burning candles,” she said after praying before one of the banks of wax candles at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood.

Provide Warmth

The 100 or more votive candles inside the huge Hollywood church, most of them lit at any one time, also provide a literal warmth, according to Father Carroll G. Laubacher, S. J., an associate pastor.


“On a cold day we don’t need to turn on the heat,” Laubacher said.

But, in a response typical of other priests, Laubacher said that problems are associated with both the plug-in candles and the real thing.

“We tried the electric ones and it really didn’t work too well here,” Laubacher said, adding that children sometimes push all the buttons in a unit, and vandals have broken into the coin box.

Because of cleaning and maintenance problems with wax candles, “we’d like to get rid of them, but they are very popular,” he said.

David Nagle, president of Carroll Electronics of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which has sold electric candles for eight years, said: “Most priests don’t like votive candles--either electronic or wax--but they are a part of people’s devotions. They call me when they have problems, such as people putting wax candles on the floor or under the pews.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola in Highland Park bought electric votive candles last year despite some hesitation by the priests. In surveying other parishes about their experiences, a St. Ignatius staff worker found that parishioner resistance to the innovation lasted as long as three years at one church.

“It’s artificial,” conceded Father John Wishard, an associate pastor at St. Camillus de Lellis, a parish near County-USC Medical Center. “I can see the practicality of it, but I also see it as a commercial thing.”


His parish church inherited electric votive lights from the religious order that previously staffed the church. “Only half of the lights are working now. Unfortunately, the manufacturer is no longer in existence,” Wishard said.

Used in the Military

Electric votive candles have long been in use in military chaplaincies. Wishard, a Navy chaplain during the Vietnam War, said they were commonly used then. But they are relatively rare in parishes of the Los Angeles archdiocese, he said.

Maas-Rowe Carillons Inc., of Escondido, is a relatively recent entry in the field, making its first sale in 1985.

At a Catholic parish in Woonsocket, R.I., which installed Maas-Rowe votive lights last November, Father William R. Jenkins said in a telephone interview that the parishioners had accepted the electric variety.

However, the priest decided not to keep the coin-box system and returned to the old-fashioned money box for donations. “I went around constantly with tweezers in my pocket; I had to keep unplugging the boxes that had dollar bills stuffed into them,” he said.