Icon (Close Menu)

Seeing Sacristies with Awe and Wonder

The launch of Sacristies of New York: Textile Treasures of the Episcopal Church in December 2023 was a notable moment in the overlapping stories of worship, material art, conservation, church history, and church archives in the New York metro region. TLC met with Garthwaite Klaiman at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to talk about her work, a forthcoming database and book project, and how the efforts followed her successful two-decade career in New York residential real estate.

St. Luke in the Fields, New York, suffered a fire in 1981 that gutted the interior of the church. One miraculous survivor was a banner of St. Ann and the Virgin Mary (above). Its origins were unknown until Garthwaite Klaiman identified it as being nearly identical to one in the church workroom of Community of St. John Baptist (below).

Your social media presence on Instagram and Facebook has been dazzling your followers for the past two years. How did you conceive of your project?

I think that most people who attend church notice that the colors of the altar frontals and the priest’s vestments change throughout the year. They might even notice unfamiliar symbols, letters, plants, or flowers decorating them. What they may not know is all those objects have deeper meanings and rich histories that can lead them into a whole new way of experiencing the sacred. I love the idea of seeing something in a whole new way, and that is why I want to share my knowledge and appreciation of ecclesiastical textiles, especially those of the Episcopal Church.

Since you have a background in fine-art conservation and auctions, why not glass, church plate, woodwork, sculpture, or some other aspect of church decoration and worship art as a focus for your interest?

My interest in vestments and paraments goes all the way back to when I was a very small child accompanying my mom while she volunteered on the altar guild at our church. Even then I knew that these textiles were special and worth the care and respect that my mom and the other ladies gave to them.

Then in college, when I needed an internship, one of my professors suggested that I contact the Community of St. John Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey. She knew of my background in historic fashion and textiles, and she thought that I might find their vestments collection of interest. The moment one of the sisters opened a huge cope cabinet containing the most exquisite work I had ever seen, I was transported back to my childhood with that same feeling of awe and wonder. That internship was almost 40 years ago, and my love of church textiles has never waned.

Are there any guidelines or limitations — historical or geographical — on the sacristies you are visiting?

When I conceived of the project, I realized that I would have to set a geographical limit by concentrating my research within sacristies located in New York state, as well as confining myself to the Episcopal Church. New York has some of the most historic churches in the country, and so far they have been a treasure trove of material for my research. Many people also think that I am only interested in historic vestments, but I want my research to cover all time periods, including contemporary designers. There are amazing artists working in the field today that I want to recognize.

What can vestments help us to understand about interactions between the sexes when vestments were produced in their specific contexts?

I think that is a very interesting question, especially as we have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women. Certainly the reintroduction of vestments and altar decoration that took place as a result of the Oxford Movement happened at a time when the boundaries between men’s and women’s spheres were extremely rigid.

But while it was only the male priest who would be wearing the stole, chasuble, etc., the imagination of the women who were designing, sewing, and embroidering these items was phenomenal. Instruction books of the period emphasized the value of making these textiles as beautiful as possible as a way to honor God.
But sometimes it was thought that wearing vestments was too “feminine.” A cartoon that was published in Punch in 1866 shows “The Reverend Augustine Cope” being surprised and horrified when his pretty young girl cousins march into his study, one wearing his chasuble and the other carrying a candlestick during their game of dress-up. Today there are companies that specialize in outfitting female clergy, and I know in my own parish we recently made two identical chasubles, one larger and one smaller, to accommodate all heights and sizes of clergy.

What have been the biggest surprises you have found in sacristies?

One of my biggest surprises so far took place at St. Luke in the Fields. I am blessed with a photographic visual memory. St. Luke’s suffered a devastating fire in 1981, which destroyed much of the interior of the church, as well as the contents of its sacristy. They were fortunate to be able to rebuild and have a parishioner, Graham French, step in to design and make all-new altar hangings and vestments for them.

Sean Schiller, their sacristan, was showing me all of Graham’s work when he realized I might like to see something that had survived the fire. He opened a custom acid-free box and my mouth dropped open. Inside was a banner of the Virgin Mary and her mother, Anne. You could see that the banner had been severely damaged by the fire, but it was still possible to discern the figures, as well as the beautiful embroidery. It was a miracle that this fabric banner had survived at all.

An early 20th-century painted and silk embroidered image of the Virgin Mary sewn onto the orphrey of a chasuble; St. Paul’s Church, Staten Island

But what was even more extraordinary was the fact that I knew of another one identical to it, and I quickly pulled out my phone to show Sean. Hanging in the church workroom in Mendham, New Jersey, was the same banner of the Virgin Mary and her mother, but this one was in perfect condition and even had a price tag of $150 on the back. The Sisters of St. John Baptist must have made an identical banner for St. Luke in the Fields in the early part of the 20th century and, by the grace of God, it had survived and I was, nearly 100 years later, able to identify it.

How do clergy, sacristans, and altar-guild members respond to your visits? How can they participate in your work?

Everyone has been extremely generous to open their sacristies to me. The response has been universally enthusiastic. Someone can go to my website and click on the tab that says Get Involved. They can fill out a form telling me a bit about their church and items in their sacristy. I will then get back in touch with them to schedule a visit.

Do you have any favorite items?

I do think that one of my recent discoveries of a cope belonging to the Church of the Transfiguration might be my favorite right now. When I first saw the cope, I knew that the cross motif was the same as a sample piece at the convent of the Community of St. John Baptist. Also, the style of embroidery was definitely theirs. About a week later, I was doing some research in the archives of the convent when I came across the actual invoice from 1927 for the Transfiguration cope, as well as the fact that it was commissioned by Miss Anna Houghton, niece of the Rev. George Hendric Houghton, founder of the Church of the Transfiguration in 1848.

Would you say something about the book project?

Silk and metallic gold orphrey medallion of Christ Pantocrator made by A.E. Grosse, Bruges, Belgium; early 19th-century; St. Mary the Virgin, New York

The book will be an extension of my project and a survey of vestment collections throughout the state. It will discuss the history of vestments, materials and techniques, the numerous vestment retailers both past and present, as well as how to design and select materials for new vestments and how to care for cherished historic ones. My sincere hope is that the book will be accompanied by an exhibition. I also have plans to create a searchable database so that this important history can be made available to scholars, artists, designers, and people who just simply love textiles.

[scribd id=708885247 key=key-WkDbbbqTUsawWS3aCje3 mode=scroll]

There has been conversation online about similarly focused geographic projects in other parts of the country. Do you have any thoughts about this idea?

I think that this type of project could be launched in other states, even other countries, and not only within the Episcopal Church but other denominations. Textiles are one of the most fragile materials, but the most familiar to us all. I’ve read that the Bible mentions garments 164 times. I have people from around the globe following me on social media, so I know that this is a subject that is just waiting for more people to get excited about. I cannot wait to open the doors, drawers, and cabinets of these “sacra,” holy places, and show the world what treasures are contained within.

Richard Mammana Jr. is TLC’s archivist and a parishioner at S. Clement’s, Philadelphia.


Top headlines. Every Friday.



Most Recent

Conversation Across Difference

Kelli Joyce, Jordan Hylden, and Matthew S.C. Olver discuss Communion Across Difference, a task force of the Episcopal Church.

Editorial: Calling on Jesus

“Master, Master, we are perishing!” We have no other hope than this.

Making a Case for Environmental Responsibility

The Rev. Canon Pam Hyde reviews Creation Care Discipleship: Why Earthkeeping Is an Essential Christian Practice.

Welcome to Louisville!

Here are several sightseeing recommendations not too far from the Kentucky International Convention Center at the corner of 4th and Jefferson Streets.