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Amid the ornately embroidered vestments, intricately tatted altar cloths and vintage lace hand-sewn more than a century ago by the women of Black Rock was a tiny sign that set the tone for the latest exhibit at the Buffalo Religious Arts Center:

“Thou shalt not touch.”

Present in the former church over the weekend were two of the women who made the exhibit possible: Mary Holland and Doreen DeBoth, president of the Black Rock Historical Society.

“I’m the lady who bought the church,” said Holland, who purchased the former St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church after it was closed in 2007. “I donated it to be used as a religious art museum. The expensive part is maintaining it.”

Proceeds from the exhibit will be put toward paying the 101-year-old church’s heating bills, which in winter – with the thermostat at 55 degrees – average $2,700 a month.

The mission of the Religious Arts Center is to collect and preserve fine art from the roughly 70 Catholic churches that have been shut down in Western New York. So far, Holland has collected art from 45 of them.

Many of the ornate vestments on display were on loan from the Rev. Kevin Lutz, a retired pastor in Columbus, Ohio, who launched a similar museum there in a former school.

Holland herself drove to Columbus to retrieve the vestments, rich in gold embellishment. The former librarian had worked for some of the largest engineering firms in the country when she returned to Western New York after 22 years and found that the Diocese of Buffalo was closing churches..

She paid $150,000 for the 12,000-square-foot basilica built in 1913 at 157 East St., near Amherst Street, in the city’s Black Rock section.

The exhibit was sponsored in part by the Black Rock Historical Society, whose members collected the vintage lace items on exhibit from descendants of the women who crafted them.

“Black Rock women would take the altar cloths home, and after washing, starching and ironing them, they would embellish them,” DeBoth said. “They would add this amazing tatting.”

The vestment exhibit will be on display through Sunday at the arts center.

Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $12.

The exhibit included a lecture by Irish-born Veronica Hogle, who brought her family’s lace and linen collection to this country in 1965. Making lace provided work for tens of thousands of starving Irish people during the potato famine of 1845 to 1849.

Hogle’s collection includes lace from Europe, South America, Africa and the United States.

A 100-year-old Edwardian christening gown, worn by four generations of Hogle’s family, and a rare Limerick lace christening dress similar to the one President John F. Kennedy received when he visited Ireland in 1963, were set to be displayed.

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com