Keeping the Faith - Church's History Being Preserved by an Unlikely Hero

Interview for the CATHOLIC SERVANT Newspaper
By Jason Adkins

It is common these days for Catholics of all stripes to complain of the lack of beauty and sterility of our worship spaces. However misguided it may seem, traditional devotional items such as statues, as well as architectural features like stained glass windows, were once said to detract from the supernatural mystery of the liturgy and hinder lay participation. As a result of this mentality, as well as the closing of many older churches since Vatican II, these pieces of our heritage have been either trashed or removed from sight.

Ironically, a local Protestant antiquities dealer has made it his business to see that many of these lost and unused items return to our sanctuaries, where their catechetical and spiritual value is being rediscovered.

Stillwater-based Don Riggott recently explained to “The Catholic Servant” a little about how his business of recovering these lost treasures is a great service to our Church.

The Catholic Servant: When did you start dealing in church goods and why?

Riggott: I had a business for about 20 years dealing in architectural antiques, but in 1995 I sold the company. After that I sort of changed the way I did business, and started buying more from churches, and also discovered that there were many churches looking for older traditional items for use in their own worship spaces. So I sort of started to specialize in liturgical artifacts, buying from and selling to churches, including items such as altars, tabernacles, monstrances, chalices, ciboria, statues, Stations of the Cross, kneelers, censers, stained glass windows, etc.

The Catholic Servant: Has your business instilled in you a fascination for the history behind the particular pieces you buy and sell?

Riggott: I find many of the items I deal with have an interesting history as to how they came about, and the meaning and symbolism behind their use. I deal with many churches that are very old and also have an interesting history, many of them retaining their ethnic origins.

The Catholic Servant: What are some of the most interesting items you’ve come across?

Riggott: Relics are an item that I have handled in my business, however, I don’t deal in relics like most other items. They are sometimes acquired when I would buy out a church’s collection of items in storage. I have placed these with other churches or priests. The relic is never sold itself. The purchase is for the reliquary and the relic is always a gift.

One of my favorite relics is a first class relic of St Francis of Assisi, and is contained in a very beautiful and colorful reliquary in the shape of a cross about six inches tall from Rome, circa 1877. It is a micro mosaic made from tiny pieces of colored glass forming very detailed images including doves and approximately 20 various symbols. I will probably keep this piece for my own collection.

I have located, purchased and sold many sets of stained glass windows over the years. My favorites are the Munich windows, which are found in many older Catholic churches and are usually figural and representing biblical scenes such as the Presentation, the Nativity, or the Visitation. They were usually made in Germany or by German artists who relocated their studios to the United States. They are typically of extremely high quality, both in artistic design as well as craftsmanship.

An example of such a find would be a set of windows I removed from an Episcopal church in a very old section of Philadelphia. One of the windows pictured the Ascension and was over twenty feet tall. Two of the windows ended up being built into a Catholic church in Phoenix, and I still have the 13 foot tall Crucifixion window in my collection.

The Catholic Servant: Why do you think churches have wanted to get rid of these old treasures? What have been some of the more common reasons for selling them?

Riggott: Many of the items I acquire are from churches that have either closed or merged with other churches, and they end up with lots of items not being used. These churches are usually very happy to see these items reused in other churches rather than collecting dust in storage rooms, and at the same time generate some cash for other uses within the church.

The Catholic Servant: Can these articles of devotion be integrated into newer, more modern church buildings?

Riggott: Many items end up being used in newer churches, and these older traditional items can work very well in a modern sanctuary. They sort of add a dimension that is both historical and nostalgic. I once bought a set of about 40 large windows from a church in Illinois and they ended up being installed in a Catholic church in Puerto Rico.

It’s interesting that many of the churches who are looking for these older, traditional items got rid of them after Vatican II in the early 1960s, and are now looking to replace these same items that they had stripped out of their church back then.

The Catholic Servant: Who has been the biggest purchaser of these antiques? Is it churches, collectors or lay people who want to preserve them in their homes?

Riggott: Churches are the largest purchaser, but some sales are to monasteries and convents.

It would be rare for me to sell items to an individual other than to a priest, and especially with liturgical items I am very careful that they do not end up being used for purposes other than what they were intended.

The Catholic Servant: Has dealing in these goods affected your personal religious life

Riggott: I am not a Catholic, and as a Christian involved mostly with Protestant and non-denominational churches, I think I had sort of a negative idea of what the Catholic Church was about. However, after dealing over the years with hundreds of priests, nuns and Catholic lay people, I now have the highest respect for most of them because of their commitment and dedication to their work, their caring for others and their strong faith in God.

I have had many interesting and challenging theological discussions with these people, a few of whom have wanted to see me convert to Catholicism. The conversations can be very interesting and stimulating and have forced me to really think about my beliefs.

I think about the work of Dale Ahlquist (Roman Catholic) of the American Chesterton Society, Mel Gibson (traditionalist Catholic), director of “The Passion of The Christ” or James Dobson (Protestant) with Focus on the Family, and their missions are all on the same page – it is to point people to the author of life.

Although we have different theological and denominational perspectives with varied expressions and roles to play, we are all one in the Body of Christ.