Thursday, April 10, 2014

Abandoned Sacred - Unmaking and remaking sacred places

Guest post by Dr. Barry Stephenson

Places of worship have life histories: they are conceived, grow and develop, pass through transformations, perhaps even die. My work examines sacred sites that have, for one reason or another, been abandoned by their users. Abandonment does not necessarily bring down the curtain on a place’s religious significance or use. There is a rich history of religious buildings being “converted” from use by one tradition for use by another. Alternatively, religious architecture, built for liturgical purposes, may be “converted” into seemingly secular sites; for example, a church becomes a theatre or a condominium complex. The language of conversion applied to sacred architecture uses a metaphor to evoke the sense of heightened emotion, import, and transformation associated with a religious experience and maps this transformative process on to a material site or natural landscape.

The phrase “abandoned sacred” then refers to processes of unmaking and remaking that take place at sacred buildings and locales. And even when this process moves in the direction from sacred to secular, there may be residues of the sacred, or a mixing of cultural domains, or a change in how the sacred is understood. The premise is that studying sacred sites during moments of crisis and change offers valuable insight into the dynamic relationships between religion and culture.


My work, using a combination of ethnographic, visual, and historical methods, examines this dynamic of abandonment-conversion at a number of sacred sites. Typically, research on sacred places has focused on the symbolic meanings of religious architecture; my work, in contrast, emphasizes moments of change in the use and meanings of sacred places. I’m interested in the eventful nature of architecture, the ways in which spaces are used, especially their connection to ritual and performance. My aim is to build relationships with partners and organizations in Newfoundland and elsewhere that have an interest in the question of church closure and transformation, in order to identify case sites for ethnographically informed study and research. As much of my research is in the area of ritual studies, I am particularly interested in the role and functioning of deconsecration rites, which have received very little study.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Barry Stephenson
Dept. of Religious Studies
Memorial University
Ph: 709-864-8113

Photos: top - Hebron from the cupola of the Moravian Church; 
middle - stone foundations of one of the Moravian buildings, OKaK; 
bottom - the former Double Island Church, Uviluktok, Labrador. 
All photos summer 1995, by Dale Gilbert Jarvis.

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