Stained glass that survived a church fire in St. Thomas, Ont., has found a home in the foyer of St. Marguerite D’Youville School in Ottawa. Photo courtesy Mark Siolek

Rescued artifacts help engage students in faith

By 
  • April 16, 2022

An Easter display in the foyer of St Marguerite D’Youville School in Ottawa contains a stained glass artistic piece that survived a fire at a church in St. Thomas, Ont. And its altar is made from reclaimed knee walls from the Church of the Ascension in Ottawa.

For years now, Mark Siolek has been working to make sure religious items like these from old churches find a sacred home within the Catholic education system. Coordinator of religious education and family life with the Ottawa Catholic District School Board, Siolek has rescued statues, stained glassed windows and other items and had them restored and installed in school chapels, foyers and elsewhere.

A labour of love, the beauty of the project, he says, is being able to contribute to Catholic education by bringing the items from church right into schools everyday. Faith is not just about reading liturgies but a full practice, where these items can help to engage young learners.

“Our faith is a full-bodied experience,” said Siolek. “It’s the bells and the smells and it brings about those emotions tied to the virtues of hope, love and justice… There are different types of learners but we also know pedagogically speaking that many are engaged by something that appeals to the senses. Once you have that engagement, it opens up the opportunity to talk about other things in regards to the development of faith life, morality and your social and emotional intelligence and spiritual awareness.”

Siolek says the significance of the items collected over the years are particularly meaningful during the Lenten season.

“We’re Easter people,” said Siolek. “These are the visuals that give you a senses of the sacrifice and the love.”

Sandra Shannon is principal at St. Isidore School in Kanata where a stained-glass window was turned into a light-box display at the entrance way of the school. The visible symbols of faith, she says, create a presence that helps the community to remember its Catholic foundations.

“We have children in our building who may not go to church very often, so for them to see those symbols of our faith in our building is very important,” said Shannon. “They get that exposure. ... Those visible symbols of our faith do create a presence.”

Siolek began the project while he was working as a chaplain with the Toronto Catholic board prior to moving to Ottawa in 2018. While watching the news, he heard a story out of Buffalo, N.Y., about Catholic parishes that were closing. Normally items from the sechurch would be collected to be redistributed but due to more supply than demand, some of the items ended up in a yard sale. Siolek was deeply troubled by one man who owned a campus pub purchasing the confessional boots to be used as urinal stalls in the bar. 

One of the early schools outfitted in Toronto received items for its chapel from a church in Sarnia, Ont., that closed in the early 2000s. The pews, he remembers, were from 1908. The person that had bought them donated them to the Toronto Catholic board. He recalls the carpenters that helped with the project were all seminarians in their youth who decided not to take their vows. Their care, connection and appreciation for the project is just one of the moments that made the project special. 

“One comment that two staff members made when they walked into the high school that was built in the 2000s with this chapel outfitted with things from 1908, was that, ‘It even smells like church when you come in here.’ There’s just this memory of that incense, and the candle wax and whatever else embedded in these pews for over 100 years”

Siolek receives donations from various seminaries and religious organizations. When the Holy Cross Sisters in Montreal were downsizing their residence, they donated 20 four-foot statues of various patrons for him to share with schools. In many cases he is able to match the statues and images of saints with the patron saint of each school.

If things require restoration, Siolek has a family friend who is an artist who has taken on that aspect of the project purely as an act of charity. He also has a partnership with the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Ottawa, which shares items of a religious nature with Siolek’s initiative.

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