Preparing for the Worst - How to Protect Your Church Valuables

By B. Gunar Gruenke
Published in Ministry & Liturgy


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. Can you rest assured that your congregation is protected? The following examples demonstrate the importance of adequately insuring your church's interior and artwork before disaster strikes. 

St. Mary's Church                                      

After a devastating fire gutted St. Mary's Church in Burlington, Wis., Conrad Schmitt Studios (CSS) was commissioned to restore the damaged and destroyed stained glass windows and the interior decoration. The roof and ceiling of St. Mary's had been completely destroyed by the fire, but the structure of the vaulted ceiling with ribs and pendants was soon restored. The historic stained glass windows also suffered significant damage. Glass and lead cames were cracked, broken, and melted. Only the exterior walls that had held them remained.

CSS archives revealed the studio had coincidentally decorated St. Mary's in 1920. Much of the damaged interior was from that decorative scheme, including the decorative painting, stations of the cross, altars, and murals. The restoration of the stained glass windows and the stations of the cross was carried out at the studio. The plaster work, decorative painting, and gilding within the church were done with the aid of extensive scaffolding. All of the specialized work was conducted over the course of more than a year.

If this were your church, would you know which items would be considered part of the building structure, which would be covered under the personal property portion of your policy, and which items must be "scheduled" separately with an appraisal in order to be covered?    

Delta United Methodist Church

Conrad Schmitt Studios was commissioned by the Delta United Methodist Church in Delta, Colo., to re-create the church's 26 stained glass windows (created in 1910) after the church was destroyed by fire. When Bernard Gruenke, Jr., president of CSS, went to investigate the remains of the church, he discovered that the shattered stained glass already had been meticulously cleaned up and disposed of, and with it the best clues to the original windows. On further investigation, Gruenke found that some glass had fallen into a parapet. From these, which included Jesus' ear, eye, nose and part of his beard as well as some background glass, CSS would be able to deduce the type of glass and painting in the original windows. The overall design could be reproduced from photographs. 

Gruenke went looking for other churches in the city that were built near the same time. He found one whose stained glass and window designs were nearly the same as those from Delta United. CSS's subsequent search for the stained glass studio of origin led to the discovery that the original glass manufacturer was still in existence and still had the formula for the 1910 glass in its files; therefore, the specific glass was able to be reproduced. The CSS's directors' extensive experience with historic glass painting also enabled them to match the original style of painting and lead caming. When the windows were reinstalled, along with new storm glass, the congregation was gratified with the faithful reproduction of this essential part of their worship environment.

Bernard Gruenke came through. However, it is better to prepare than to back-track. Even if your insurance policy covers the dollar amount of the damages, would you be able to describe to a restoration artist the pre-fire design enough for him to recreate it exactly? 

St. John's Baptist Church

At St. John's Baptist Church in Glandorf, Ohio, a fire started in the sacristy and destroyed two stained glass windows, harmed three others, and caused smoke damage throughout the interior of the church. Conrad Schmitt Studios' glass artisans restored the damaged windows and replicated the lost ones using photographs and existing windows to determine the appropriate style and types of glass. They cleaned smoke and soot from the walls, ceilings, furnishings, and artwork of the fire-scorched church. Then, decorative painting, stenciling, gilding and glazing were reapplied to restore the interior to an updated decorative scheme. Four large oil-on-canvas paintings and murals also were conserved. The main altar was restored, and two side altars were polychromed and gilded. The stations of the cross and several others statues were washed, cleaned, painted and highlighted to return them to their original appearance. One year after the fire, the beauty of the historic St. John the Baptist Church was restored.

In this example, CSS was able to use documentation to restore the church. If your church was recently restored or renovated, do you have the records of the costs of the various services? Perhaps new carpet has been installed or a fresh coat of paint applied. Copies of these contracts can assist in rebuilding a space. The key is organization and documentation. 

Sacred Heart of Jesus Church

The 1891 Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Indianapolis suffered a devastating fire by old wiring. The fire resulted in the loss of much of its historic interior, including four turn-of-the-century stained glass windows and 11 murals. Photographs taken after the fire tell the story best: soaring ceilings burned black, sunlight glaring in through empty panes, 70-year old pews dripping water. Flame, water, and soot destroyed historic stained glass windows, the ornate wooden high altar, eight music-playing angels with unfurled wings painted in the nave, murals of the annunciation, the nativity, and the resurrection, and much more.   

Parishioner Rick Hermann of William Hermann and Son, a fifth-generation carving and woodworking studio, got a call at 5 a.m. He rushed to assess the damage to his beloved church and to the Gothic white oak pews made by his grandfather, Norbert, in 1930.  He described the scene as unbelievable. 

Restoration began immediately.  Hermann and others carried the more than 100 pews outside and dried them. Only two were beyond repair; Hermann's studio restored the rest. Conrad Schmitt Studios restored the murals and stained glass and recreated an elaborate 1936 decorative painting done by Alphonse Schmitt, son of the studio's founder. 

Conrad Schmitt Studios was very fortunate to take part in helping each of these churches return to its pre-fire elegance and magnificence. Because of these experiences, we know that when a church has insurance, recovery can be a beautiful experience in which artisans can help bring life back to a community.  But the situation becomes bleak when a community not only suffers the physical and emotional loss of their church but also must reach into their pockets to sponsor or donate to rebuild it. Take care to properly insure your beloved church, and your loss won't leave you in shambles with nowhere to turn.    

Make sure your insurance is church-specific

Take a careful look around your church and think about what you would be missing if everything were covered in ash.  Sure, you have an insurance policy for the church, but do you understand the terms and conditions of your insurance policy? 

For instance, a precious relic is built into an altar that is permanently attached to the floor. Would your insurance policy consider this personal property or part of the building? For decades, altars, statuary, tabernacles, baptismal fonts, Stations of the Cross and valuable historic light fixtures are gray areas for insurance policies. What about the ornate chalice in the sacristy or the ostensorium with precious gems?  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; only three of these sets known to exist: what if something happened to these treasures, could they be replaced?  How do we ensure these items are covered?  To avoid a catastrophe, these questions must be answered before a disaster happens.  

Churches and church items are difficult to categorize because each is unique in its architecture and décor, as well as its degree of economical and sentimental value, so buy your insurance from a company that specializes in church coverage. Many agents have received training in risk management, and are willing to help you evaluate your assets on a continual basis so that your policy that will cover you in case of a loss. They will know whether to include the pews and the organ under the building amount, and so forth. Nonetheless, it is always a good idea to build a knowledge base so that you can select and maintain the coverages that best meet the needs of your church.   

Which type and for how much?

The National Fire Protection Association reports that there were 240 intentional church fires in a single year, with a resultant property damage replacement cost of $28.6 million dollars. The NFPA also reports that one in every four fires is caused by arson, making this the leading cause of loss. Consider purchasing an "all risk" insurance policy in which all causes of loss are covered unless otherwise excluded. 

How much insurance you carry on your building and property will be the determining factor in how much you will receive if there is a total loss. This is not as simple as listing the original purchase prices or current market values. Hire an appraiser familiar with churches, because paintings, statuary, stained glass, and even Holy Bibles may need to be scheduled if they are worth more than other items of comparable use. Make sure that all fine art is specifically listed in your policy. 

Once the value of your treasure is calculated, you must decide how much to insure it all for. You will be given the option of a policy with replacement cost or actual cash value. Replacement cost is generally suggested because it covers the cost to repair or replace an item with material of comparable kind and quality, whereas actual cash value takes deterioration and depreciation into account. Many polices require you to insure the structure and contents to at least a 90-percent value and to have an agreed upon amount for endorsements. Consider having a "blanket limit" policy, which covers your building and contents under one limit of insurance that is comfortably above the coinsurance requirement.

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. Some worship spaces possess millions of dollars in stained glass treasures, and some contain priceless masterpieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany or John LaFarge.  However, insurance policies usually place limitations on the amount you collect for glass: generally $250 per pane with a maximum payout of $1,000 for all panes broken accidentally or by vandals.  Therefore, it is important to make sure the value of replacement cost for your windows are scheduled in your policy. But even if your glass is properly insured, would you be able to convey the artwork's design to a restoration stained glass artist? (See sidebar for tips on choosing a stained glass restoration artist.)

Be Prepared

Should disaster strike, you will need thorough records 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.

It is imperative to be prepared. This requires a thorough record of your space and treasured objects.

(When available, a record of the original artist or studio can be very valuable for a restoration studio because the studio may have artists who have restored artwork of a particular style in the past and are familiar with various techniques used by the original artist). Make a complete inventory list and update it 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.

All of this important documentation should be attached to your insurance coverage paperwork and stored in a secure location off-site. It is a good idea to keep a copy at someone's home, at your insurance agent's office, or in a safety deposit box. Advance preparation now will save time and money in the future. 

Researching stained glass restoration studios

If you must replace or replicate a historic stained glass window, be sure to research qualified studios. 

  • Does the studio have extensive experience restoring stained glass? How long has it been in business?
  • Does the studio stand behind its craftsmanship?
  • Does it employ the best techniques to ensure quality and longevity in the work?

A qualified studio will be able to interpret photographs, allowing artists to match trace lines and shading. Lead lines can be replicated and colors can be matched.  Having this information well documented in a safe place can mean a new window does not have to be interpreted from a blurry wedding photo taken in the 1950s.

For more than a century, Conrad Schmitt Studios (New Berlin, Wis.; www.conradschmitt.com) has been involved in the decoration and restoration of churches, cathedrals, theatres, and other landmarks as well as the design and creation of stained glass, murals, and other works of art. The studio was founded in Milwaukee in 1889 by Conrad Schmitt, a son of Bavarian immigrants.  The Gruenke family has been part of the firm since 1936; B. Gunar Gruenke, one of the third generation to join the firm, continues the family's commitment to the quality and longevity of their art. 

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