Stained glass windows, wooden pews, crucifixes, statues and icons--some of which once graced old churches and some always meant for personal use--are increasingly being used as design elements in homes.
Some of those using these objects to adorn their living areas are moved by genuine religious sentiment, some by a more worldly interest in the latest design trend, some by a fascination on both levels.
Nancy Sinner--yes, it's her real name, and, no, it's not why she collects what she does--has filled her townhouse in Orange with so many religious artifacts that when friends come by they often ask, "Do we have to start praying?"
Crucifixes and icons adorn the walls. Her shelves and tabletops are crammed with statues representing Jesus and Mary, crosses of all kinds, candlesticks and fonts.
"I once looked at a church steeple and thought, 'Where could I put that?' But I decided it would look out of place on top of my townhome," Sinner says.
Her collection mixes freely with her other eclectic furnishings and has spread throughout her bedroom and bath. Among her rarer pieces: a two-foot-high wooden santo (an image of a saint) holding baby Jesus in one hand and a skull in the other that dates back to the early 1800s; a prayer box she found in a thrift shop with a carving of images of Mary and Jesus and a drawer below for storing a rosary, candle or other religious items, and a mid-1800s altar boy bank with a bobbing head used to collect money for missionaries.
"I love living with spiritual things. They're beautiful to look at," Sinner says. "I'm Catholic, and my grandmother was very Catholic. She loved crucifixes. I've loved religious things for years, and now decorators are really using them a lot."
Interest in collecting religious artifacts has emerged as a trend over the past four or five years. Cher is an avid collector, and Madonna--the celebrity, that is--is said to have furthered the trend with her mania for crosses.
Not until a year ago, however, did Orange County antique dealers notice a big jump in the demand for holy objects.
Some buyers use the religious items as they were intended, say, to set up a small shrine or altar in the home for private worship. Others find radically different uses for religious artifacts.
Abbie Francis, sales supervisor for the Old Chicago Antique Market in Fountain Valley, which usually has a few church furnishings on hand, recalls how a preacher's pulpit was purchased by a homeowner and converted into a bar.
Pews are often shortened and used as benches on porches, in hallways or with tables, Francis says.
Most religious articles come from churches that have been torn down. The churches auction off their furnishings, which are purchased by antique dealers and passed along to buyers, says Johnny Lambrecht, owner of Cardinal Church Furniture in Azusa, which sells old and new church furnishings.
"We've become more sensitive to older buildings and want to preserve their content," Lambrecht says. "In the 1940s through 1960s everybody wanted to modernize. That's how a lot of the pews ended up on the market today."
In this machine-made age, people have begun to appreciate the handcrafted artistry of pre-1950s pews, which often had elaborate rosettes and Gothic arches hand-carved out of fine Appalachian red oak, Lambrecht says.
While the recent closure of some older Catholic churches has added to the supply of artifacts, antique dealers say that increased demand is rapidly drying up their inventory.
Still, a diligent collector can find religious items at antique stores, flea markets, thrift stores and estate sales.
Sinner, an antique dealer by trade (although she never sells her religious items), has a knack for finding rare pieces for just a few dollars.
Many of her best items have been found at garage sales and thrift shops. She found her favorite piece, a 1930s-era statue in the image of the Christ child wearing a tiny crown, at a garage sale for $10, and she recently came across a turn-of-the-century Staffordshire porcelain font selling at the Goodwill for $1.
Some of Sinner's finds are campy--such as her plastic snow globe with a Madonna image. Other items are a touch morbid, such as the tiny cross that inexplicably conceals a switchblade or the stained- glass lantern with a brass cross on top that Sinner says came off of an old funeral car.
Some truly fine religious specimens can be found through antique dealers.
Richard Yeakel, owner of Richard Yeakel Antiques in Laguna Beach, has rare artifacts that go back centuries, such as 13th-Century chalices and 12th-Century religious art.
When Pope John Paul II visited Los Angeles two years ago, he borrowed four pieces from Yeakel to use for a private Mass, including a 15th-Century triptych (three panels with Christ and 12 saints carved out of wood) and a three-tiered cross believed to have been made for a 15th-Century Pope that remains in Yeakel's personal collection.
"Most art from before the 17th Century is religious. Back then churches had the money to hire the great artists," Yeakel says.
The Great Exchange Consignment Co. in Laguna Beach routinely sells religious items, most of which were purchased from churches by wealthy patrons and sold off with their estates. There's a small collection of icons, hand-painted on wood and often adorned with brass or silver overlays, that date back to the 1700s.
"They say the home is blessed with an icon hanging in it. That's why people buy them," says Tom Campbell, co-owner of the Great Exchange.
Religious artifacts come from churches all over the world, from Mexico to Russia. Synagogues and Buddhist temples are other sources of artifacts.
At the Great Exchange, Campbell usually has Buddhas of all kinds as well as temple carvings--elaborate, colorful carvings that once hung over doorways to temples. He mounted one temple carving in his back yard on a gazebo that overlooks an Oriental garden. Yeakel has many items that once belonged in synagogues, such as Hanukkah lamps and menorahs.
Interest in religious objects crosses all denominations. One doesn't have to belong to the religion to appreciate a beautiful furnishing from a church or temple, Sinner says.
For her, the spiritual meaning of the pieces she collects outweighs their trendy, monetary appeal.
"God's close to me. This is like living with part of him in my home," she says.