Several years ago my Pastor, Fr. Dennis Gordon, FSSP, asked me if I would build him a portable altar to house an altar stone from the Cristeros era. He had seen some of my carpentry skills through work I had done at a relative’s house, so he thought I might be up for the challenge.
I first set out devising a very basic model to work out the practical considerations. From there, I went on to build several prototypes, and with the feedback of the parish priests, I came up with a carry-on-sized model — meant to fit in overhead airplane bins (22″ X 14″ X 9″) with two small built-in drawers for a Mass Kit. My first working model was the one I created for Fr. Gordon — made from hemlock — complete with legs! (Admittedly, I haven’t built one with legs since, as they present difficulties in construction):
Subsequent hemlock models (without legs) have also been popular:
I presented the finished altar to our priests and received great feedback – they reassured me this was an item many priests would appreciate. Realizing that I had stumbled upon a business model, I decided to try selling my altars online. My first attempt at advertising was on eBay, but I did not receive any bids for the first ten days. However, I did receive a nice note from a gentleman who suggested I contact some traditional Catholic blogs that might be willing to post something about the altars. It was then that I approached Rorate Caeli. They went on to feature a very nice article on my altars, which elevated my profile and really launched me into the beginnings of a cottage business.
The more altars I have built, the more feedback I receive from the priests, and the more I improve upon the design, while still keeping the same shape and appearance. Regina Magazine did a story about my altars in November, 2013, which spread the word even further.
Approximately 90% of the altars I have built have altar stones, most of which have been rescued after being discarded. I love putting these altar stones back into service for Our Lord, and it is part of my mission to rehabilitate as many of these as possible. The stones range in size from 9″ X 12″ to 4″ x 6″. Priests often spend months searching for a suitable one. Those who opt to have an altar without a stone say they prefer to travel lightly and with a corporal or antimensum. The stone alone can weigh from two pounds up to fifteen pounds – a significant element to consider when traveling.
It takes 52 pieces of wood to put one of these altars together. The process takes several weeks. My first finish was a hand-rubbed wipe-on polyurethane, but I have since perfected a spray-on high-gloss lacquer which brings out the beautiful natural grain and provides a hardened, glossy finish for extra protection.
Fr. Zulsdorf presented my African Mahogany altar on his blog last May and the telephone did not stop ringing for days. He provided some great feedback which I took to heart and have applied his suggestions in my construction.
Recently, I devised a “light-weight” model, made from pine, that only weighs 14 lbs. This was created at the request of a priest with a bad back:
My heaviest altar is 37 lbs., made of rosewood, a specially-commissioned project from a lady whose son was recently ordained:
I am currently working on a special order of interest: a “backpack” model, that will be a smaller folding mensa encompassing an altar stone and a lid — no drawers — and meant to be used after placing it on a large boulder or tree stump. I enjoy the special requests priests have in custom tailoring an altar to their needs. Some have wanted their own crucifix installed or special stains/finishes or woods used.
In addition to the U.S., I have shipped altars to Ireland, England, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Australia and New Zealand.
I will soon reach altar number 100! When I started this venture, I never dreamed these would be so needed. I am told that priests use them in a variety of settings: missionary priests who travel around their diocese (or Australian Outback) to provide the Holy Mass for rural areas, in Nursing Homes, on private retreats, on scouting trips, in their parents’ homes when visiting, in hospitals – for the dying, and in military settings.
Many priests find the cost prohibitive. I donate when I can, but I also encourage parishioners “passing the hat” to help their priests. I also welcome any altar stone donations – even the very large stones. I was able to provide a priest from Spain with a donated altar stone for his traditional chapel altar. He said he was so grateful especially when he says the words “oramus te domine per merita sanctorun tuorum quorum reliquiae hic sunt.” (“We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of those of Thy saints whose relics are here, and of all the saints, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to pardon me all my sins.”) I have rescued many altar stones off of eBay that I donate to priests for their altars.
Just a little note about wood in general. It is my favorite medium to work with. I love the smell of freshly cut wood. Each species has it’s own distinct odor. I almost feel as if it talks to me when choosing how to put boards together to accentuate the grain and patterns found in the wood. A favorite technique of mine is to have a continuous grain from one end of the mensa to the other.
I begin each of my workdays by asking St. Joseph to help guide me in my work – so that I can build for the honor and glory of Our Lord, for the sanctification of his priests and those who attend the Masses said on these altars as well as my own sanctification. I love my work and am forever thankful for having been given such a purpose.
I do not know how long I will continue to build – I leave it up to Our Lord to guide me.
Editor’s note: Altars from St. Joseph’s Apprentice are available for order at www.stjosephsapprentice.com. This is not a paid advertorial.