Altar dedication at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church

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[Edith Cody-Rice] The chunking of car doors broke the evening silence as parishioners arrived for the dedication of the altar at Holy Name of Mary Catholic Church on Bridge Street in Almonte. I was there to interview Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, Archbishop of Ottawa, who was to conduct the dedication ceremony. We sat in the kitchen of the rectory where the Archbishop explained the ritual and the significance of each element.

Altar Holy Name of Mary 3

The dedication of an altar usually accompanies the dedication of a church, but in this case, the church has been in existence since the 1840’s, and in its current elegant stone form since the  1860’s. It has a beautiful interior graced by richly coloured stained glass windows and is a tribute to the faith of the 19th century Almonte residents who built it. Almonte must have been a community of modest means at the time, but, through a novel arrangement in which a farmer mortgaged his farm and parishioners paid down the mortgage, funds were found.

Until Vatican II, the  altar (a marble  example still exists in this church), was at the very front of the church and the priest would perform the mass with his back to his parishioners. More recently, after Vatican II,  altars have been freestanding so that the priest could stand behind it, face his flock and thus include them more completely in the ceremony.

Altar - Holy Nam of Mary

The Catholic religion is rich in pageantry and tradition and each gesture in the dedication of a church or altar is symbolic. As Father Prendergast explained, the consecration itself changes the simple table into an altar, set aside for religious observance. The altar represents Christ who offered the perfect sacrifice and is reminiscent of the table at the Last Supper. During the consecration, holy oil or chrism (from the Greek word ‘anointing’), consecrated in Holy Week, is sprinkled on the altar, recalling that the word Christ means the “anointed one” or Messiah in Hebrew and the chrism used at Christ’s baptism and the baptism and confirmation of all Catholics. Charcoal pellets are lit on the four corners of the altar, causing smoke to rise, symbolic of the incense and prayers which rise to God, and fire is lit on the altar surface (this case on a metal tray as the altar is of wood), again symbolizing Christ, who is the light of the world. Father Prendergast offered this homily(Dedication of New Altar at Holy Name of Mary, Almonte) during the service.

The new wooden altar in Holy Name of Mary was crafted by experienced altar maker John Smit of DunRobin. It is the second free standing altar in the church, the first being the gift of local parishioner Orville Clement. Parishioner Marie Dunn funded the new altar and ambo, or pulpit, in honour of her deceased husband John Dunn. A new lectern was the gift of parishioner Brian Langlais to honour his wife Brenda. The still serviceable older altar will be offered to another congregation.

Every altar must contain a relic of  a martyr or saint, a practice recalling the persecution of  Christians who frequently performed their mass in the Roman catacombs on the tombs of martyrs. The relic is stored on below the altar surface. Parish priest Father Lindsay Harrison told the Millstone that although the previous altar had two relics, the authenticating documentation had been lost and thus a new relic was needed.

Brother Andre relic

Holy Name of Mary is fortunate to have been given a relic,  believed to be a small hair of the Canadian saint, André Bessette, who lived from 1845 to 1937 and was canonized in 2010. Better known as Brother André, he was porter at Collège Notre-Dame across the street from the current site of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. His great confidence in Saint Joseph inspired him to recommend this saint’s devotion to the  afflicted. On his many visits to the sick in their homes, he would rub the sick person lightly with oil taken from a lamp burning in the college chapel and recommend them in prayer to St. Joseph. People claimed that they had been cured through the prayers of the Brother André and Saint Joseph. He began the campaign to build the spectacular St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal and shepherded it into existence. During his life he traveled in the Ottawa Valley inspiring parishioners.

The altar dedication attracted some 300 parishioners to celebrate this major event in the religious life of the community.