March 29, 2010; Episcopal Life Online | Say you’re organization is a church that runs an after school program, a food pantry (feeding as many as 120 people at a time), a shelter for homeless men (40 to 50 men living at the church each night), and a community development corporation.  You and your nonprofit and service programs are not broke, but the economic times are what they are. Then assume an art collector offers you seven figures for your church’s stained glass windows. What do you do?

That’s the challenge facing St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Paterson, New Jersey. An anonymous art collector has offered $2 million to buy 13 of the church’s stained glass windows, 12 created by the famed Louis Tiffany, the other by artist John LaFarge. The collector wants to exhibit the windows this fall and has given the church until April to make its decision.

Christie’s values the windows at between $1,290,000 and $1,930,000 and an independent appraiser values them at $2,515,000.  If the collector buys them for $2 million, there will also be the costs of restoring and refurbishing them, costing somewhere up to $520,000. There will also be the cost of the installation of bulletproof glazing.

St. Paul’s hadn’t been shopping the windows, but the unsolicited offer is certainly attractive, especially to an inner city parish in one of New Jersey’s poorest and most troubled cities, no longer the “Silk City” of its textile-manufacturing heyday.

Selling stained glass is not unknown in the Episcopal world; St. John’s Episcopal in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was able to stay open last year by selling three Tiffany windows and would like to sell two more. But for the Paterson church, it is a quandary. Keep the unique art that it owns or infuse its endowment and social programs with otherwise unavailable cash. To make this hard decision, parish leaders have had polite and respectful discussions. To make the final decision, a spokesperson said, “We’re praying to be led by the Spirit.”—Rick Cohen