An altar of repose crafted from a single piece of limestone from land owned by George Washington now graces St. Aloysius Church, Jackson. The altar was once installed in Calvary Episcopal Church, Conshohoken, Pa. Joe Moore photo
An altar of repose crafted from a single piece of limestone from land owned by George Washington now graces St. Aloysius Church, Jackson. The altar was once installed in Calvary Episcopal Church, Conshohoken, Pa. Joe Moore photo

Through happy circumstance, the altars of two retired houses of worship have found a second life. Two parishes of the Diocese recently welcomed Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., to celebrate Mass and dedicate these iconic additions to their worship spaces.

St. Aloysius Church, Jackson, was the recipient of a new altar of repose, which the Bishop blessed Oct. 2 at the 5 p.m. Mass. The historic paneled altar – originally installed in Calvary Episcopal Church, Conshohoken, Pa., now the merged Episcopal parish of St. Mary of Calvary, Elverson, Pa. – needed a new home.

“The altar was historic because it was fabricated from a single block of limestone from a quarry in the Commonwealth of Virginia owned by President George Washington,” said Father John Bambrick, pastor of St. Aloyisius Parish.

During a Mass Oct. 7, the Bishop consecrated a newly-acquired altar for the frequently-used side chapel of St. Dominic Church, Brick. The altar came from an old shuttered convent in Philadelphia, having moved afterwards from one warehouse to another.

“We really found it by chance,” said Father Brian P. Woodrow, St. Dominic Parish pastor. He creidited David Gardiner of GHS Studio, which specializes in ecclesiastical design and architecture, as being instrumental in the acquisition.

See the Photo Gallery for both altar installations here.

New Life for Artistry

Explaining how his parish connected with the new altar, Father Bambrick recalled, “One of my Iconography teachers, Maureen McCormick, formerly of Princeton University Museum, worked for the art company Atelier FAS Group in Philadelphia that was storing the altar.” Prior to the pandemic, McCormick asked him to help her find the altar a new residence. After COVID delays subsided, the parish raised funds for the altar’s transportation to its new home in St. Aloysius Church, where it now stands as the altar of repose for the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle – behind the main altar in the large worship space.

“St. Aloysius had a separate Eucharistic Reservation room where the tabernacle was only visible to a small percentage of the congregation as you entered the building,” Father Bambrick explained. “We moved it forward in that space, but it was still not visible to the whole congregation.”

He noted that studies have shown a decline in belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and that the parish wanted to emphasize and make the Blessed Sacrament more visible. The new altar, companied with a 12-inch concrete platform installed by Atelier, was the perfect solution, he added.

In addition to raising money for the altar’s transportation and installation, parishioners also funded 12 new brass altar candle holders. The 7,750-pound altar took just over a week to install, and includes carvings of grapes, the four evangelists, quatrefoils, a cross and more.

The repurposed altar for St. Dominic Church was also in the planning stages prior to the pandemic – which, surprisingly, offered a unique opportunity for the chapel’s preparation.

“It’s a high-traffic area – the most utilized space during the week with daily Adoration, Confessions, and three to four Masses a day,” Father Woodrow noted of the chapel dedicated to St. Joseph. “During COVID when we had to close it, there was an opportunity to bring in Spanish tile – a nod to our patron, St. Dominic, who was from Spain,” and to finish preparing the space for the new altar to arrive.

“The marble brought in for the altar of repose and ambo and other pieces are all Italian, [crafted] by the same company that did the marble in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.,” he pointed out.

Atop the altar was crafted a new mensa – or table top – and a new relic was replaced inside, necessitating a reconsecration for the altar to be used for Masses. “We really don’t know or have a good idea of which saint the relic came from, because it dates back to a time of massive immigration,” Father Woodrow explained. “There was such a huge boom, and they didn’t keep paperwork on relics brought over during that time.”

Before COVID restrictions, the chapel space, an addition to St. Dominic Church, “really became the heart of the parish, constantly getting visitors,” he continued. “The dream was to add artwork,” which came in the form of Spanish statues of the Holy Family, and a commissioned five-painting triptych atop the mensa, painted by local artist Gordon Daugherty, who specializes in murals in a Renaissance style similar to that of Caravaggio (1571-1610) – an Italian painter known for his realism and dramatic use of light.

“These masterful works feature the life of St. Joseph, and two things stand out to make them unique,” Father Woodrow pointed out. “The first is that a dog with a torch in its mouth was added to the Holy Family painting, and that’s a nod to St. Dominic – when his mother was pregnant with him, she had a dream of a dog with a torch in its mouth, setting the world on fire.” The ‘Dominican,’ he continued, is a play on the Latin Domini canes, which means “dogs of the Lord.”

The second unique feature, he said, is in the painting of the Flight into Egypt. “We put a blue jay in the tree because he is the mascot for our grammar school, and we thought that would be neat for the kids to see,” Father Woodrow effused. “We wanted to assure there was something that could reach every person in every stage of their lives, that everyone could relate to.”

Grateful Response

The new altars have been well received and appreciated by many visitors to and members of St. Aloysius and St. Dominic Parishes.

“There are countless parishioners who have said they are moved to tears seeing the beauty [of the altar] when they walk in,” said Father Woodrow. “It’s been an overwhelming positive response … you plan things as a pastor knowing that you ought to, but that doesn’t lessen the amount of hope that it will be well-received; I was nervous opening that [chapel] door for the first time!”

Father Bambrick called the project “a contribution to the Ecumenical path Vatican II began and which Pope Francis continues in the upcoming Synod.

“I wrote to Rev. Thomas McClellan, rector of St. Mary of Calvary, ‘I think it is wonderful in an era of church closings that these sacred objects designed and used for the praise of God can continue the purpose for which they were created,’” he continued. “While our Communions are not in communion with one another - yet, by God's Grace one day the Lord’s desire ‘That all may be one’ will come about ...  In the meantime, we share an altar which symbolically anticipates the Lord’s desire for us.”

Rev. McClellan had responded to Father Bambrick, stating, “I share your desire that one day indeed we may be one in sharing the Eucharistic meal of our Lord. As you aptly stated, may the sharing of this beautiful altar symbolically anticipate that glorious day!”