School chaplain saves sacred items from profane destiny

Mark Siolek, with his daughter Madeline, in pews he saved and which are now in use at Msgr. Percy Johnson Catholic High School in Toronto.


Mark Siolek, with his daughter Madeline, in pews he saved and which are now in use at Msgr. Percy Johnson Catholic High School in Toronto.

May 12, 2014

When Mark Siolek read an article about a bar owner purchasing confessionals from the Archdiocese of Buffalo to be used in bathrooms, his stomach turned.

"They were having like a church yard sale (and) one fellow had bought confessionals and they took the confessionals and he put them in his bar as urinal stalls," said Siolek.

"That really didn't sit well with me, so any time parishes were closing I would put out a feeler to see if there was anything that we could do."

That led Siolek, who worked at Toronto's Bishop Allen Academy at the time, to establish "a church furniture bank," where he would salvage, restore and relocate items from closing parishes into Toronto Catholic school chapels.

Among the items Siolek has saved from a potentially less than holy home is a large wooden baptismal font from a church that was being converted into a house. Siolek said the homeowner intended to use the font as an ice bucket.

Other horror stories include altars being turned into fireplace mantles, pews becoming couches and presider chairs sitting at the head of dining room tables.

"Through the network that we have in our school board, we've been able to move stuff around," said Siolek, adding that about one-third of Toronto's Catholic schools have salvaged items in their chapels now.

"If we couldn't use them in our schools then we redirected them to other elementary and secondary schools who could give them the proper veneration and respect they deserve.

"The presence of (these pieces) just gives a chapel an atmosphere of respect, it gives a sense of history of the Church and, to quote Ignatius of Loyola, it gets the sacramental imagination and spiritual imagination going."

Five years ago when Siolek moved from Bishop Allen to his current school, Msgr. Percy Johnson Catholic High School, as school chaplain, he kept up the tradition of salvaging and set to redecorating his new chapel.

First, Siolek found some stained glass and an organ, then an altar, then a pulpit and presider's chair. And then 40 pews, which he had valued at $120,000 to purchase brand new, ended up on the school's doorstep.

It all highlighted the two biggest challenges of his project: logistics and storage.

"Just the visual of all the pews being placed in here was disconcerting for some because they were like, 'What are we going to do with all of these?'" he said.


But at least one person, school principal Susan Souter, didn't think that way. She embraced Siolek's vision of a stunning chapel.

"(Now) it is a beautiful place for people to go and that is what we wanted it to be, like a focal point of the schools. It is like a centrepiece really," she said.

But for Siolek it is about more than just the raw beauty of pieces which date back as far as the 1800s; it is about nurturing the faith of the students.

"You always have to have a connection going back to what came before," he said. "For many of our students who don't go to church as often as they could the chapel here provides them with an opportunity to experience church."

Although there are differences between a chapel and a church, Father Jim Zettel said the chapel at Msgr. Johnson is one of his favourite places to celebrate Mass because of its vibe.


"I like very much coming to this chapel, I feel like a Catholic priest (here)," said Zettel, who most recently celebrated Mass there on April 25.

"When people who are sincerely Catholic, specifically teachers, come into a chapel like this which is objectively beautiful, you are almost brought into, instinctively by the heart, a recognized beauty and your mind being drawn up to God."

Even though the chapel at Msgr. Johnson is nearly entirely outfitted with salvaged items, excluding a few shelves and statues, Siolek's dedication to salvaging hasn't lightened up: "It is my calling."

That's a good thing because people don't seem like they'd let him stop even if he wanted.

"Some of these things are just donated anonymously," he said. "People will just send stuff with my name and no return address. I just got a large bronze casting of St. Jerome which was just sent to my home; it weighs like 200 pounds."