Closing church auctions not only items, but memories

Dec 3, 2013

As ringing bells herald this Christmas season, another city church has gone silent. The West Genesee  United Methodist Church in Syracuse has closed its doors, and last week it auctioned off its contents.

You don’t often hear “Amazing Grace” played on a piano and the call of an auctioneer in the same place.  But recently you could hear them both at the West Genesee United Methodist Church in Syracuse. After 140 years, this onetime community anchor has closed its doors, and sold nearly all its contents at auction.  From stained glass windows to the altar furniture, right down to the brass hooks that held the choir robes.

The piano was just being tested out by a prospective bidder.

Two years ago the few members left voted to “restart” as a ministry that reaches out people in the community rather than continue as a traditional church. Now it’s just too expensive to heat and maintain the large brick building, said Rev. Rebecca Laird.

“When we look at our faith and look at who we are as Christians, we don’t worship the building,” said Laird.  “The building is just, it’s just a place. And we really want to be in our community sharing God’s love."

The auction profits will fund the church’s new mission.

The auctioneer led the bidders en masse through three floors of the church building. The largest and most valuable items -- tables, rugs, the church bell and that baby grand  -- were arranged in the sanctuary.  Among the bidders were many long-time members of the church.

“It just holds a lot of meaning,” said Kathy Garty.

Garty wanted one of the solid chestnut church pews, but she became emotional when she saw dozens crammed into a room.

“It’s so sad,” she said. “There’s just so many memories of these being there and you grow up and now they’re going to go to wherever...everybody...they’re just selling it!”

Craig Nunneker watched the scene as he leaned on both his cane and an old table. He was married here in 1952.  

“Just memories for me.This was your whole life. They had meetings and classes and things that went on during the week that kept you occupied,” he said.

Nunneker cooked the church’s monthly roast beef dinners, and he was looking for his favorite pot. But plenty of antique dealers and collectors were here, too, bringing with them a more appraising eye. People like Joseph Downing and Will Doswell.

“Is there anything in particular we’re looking for? No, just things of beauty,” said Downing.

“This whole church is really beautiful” Doswell added.

But Doswell, too, seemed wistful about a bygone era.

“As a kid growing up churches were a place where there were beautiful things, and it was all very revered, and now it seems like every year we go to another church auction to watch it all being sold off,” he said.

Rev. Laird said to her it is slivers of history and legacy being passed to the community, and it’s a sign of the times.

“At this point in the stage of where the church is at, I think it’s pretty impossible for the church to preserve buildings as large as this when the member base is not what it used to be,” she said.

West Genesee United Methodist Church itself will go on the auction block later this month.

David Chanatry reported this story as part of the New York Reporting Project at Utica College. You can read more of the project's stories at their website,