On Thursday, September 12 of this year, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast will bless and dedicate a new altar at Holy Name of Mary Church in Almonte. Local residents will be interested in the historical background of the Catholic church in our area.
Until the 1840s, the spiritual needs of Catholic parishioners were attended to by Father John McDonough, parish priest in Perth. His jurisdiction covered the whole of Lanark County. Travelling by horseback, he said Mass in the homes of various parishioners. In 1842, Father John Hugh McDonough, successor to Father John McDonough, proposed to the local Catholics the idea of building their own church to serve Ramsay, Darling and Lanark. Daniel Shipman, an early entrepreneur in this area, before it was called Almonte donated a gift of land consisting of one and a half acres. This location on Bridge Street remains to this day.
The original church in Ramsayville was a frame structure measuring 40 feet by 60 feet and featured clapboard exterior with lathe and plaster interior as well as a small bell tower on the peak of the roof. Sadly, on Christmas night, 1868, flames were seen leaping from the church windows. The building was destroyed; only a few relics remained included the altar stone. Insurance was recovered but the amount of $1,514.66 proved to be precious little to build a new edifice.
The determined parishioners vowed to be in a new church for the next Christmas. Temporary quarters were found in Reilly`s Hall. A building committee convened on January 6, 1869. A subscription list was opened. People hastened to pledge whatever possible. Some even mortgaged theirs homes or farms.
A decision was reached to build the new church of Lanark County stone and to make it 90 feet by 50 feet with a tower of 15 or 16 feet. Andrew Bell was named as architect. His plans went out to tender, five being received. On April 27, 1869, the award went to Messrs William Willoughby and Oakley. As more money was needed, the Protestants of Ramsay were generous as well as some members of Parliament. On the 29th of June, 1869, the cornerstone of the new church was laid. Building continued through the summer and into the autumn and although the scaffolding was still in place, the roof was on and the dream of the parishioners was realized when Mass was celebrated on Christmas Day in the new church.
In recent years, many improvements have enhanced the property of Holy Name of Mary Church. One of the first items was landscaping to set the stage. This was followed by exterior painting on the doors and windows. The interior restoration was a meticulous process as old paint colours and design details were unearthed. The stained glass windows have been restored with only two left to be completed. A new washroom, with handicap access, designed by Peter Mansfield, was installed and tucked into an alcove accessible from the parking lot. A new sound system has been installed in the church. The rectory has been renovated. Also, the marble Communion rail still stands. The large pipe organ, still in use, is a Warren, manufactured in Montreal and donated in 1875. The original high altar of marble still stands in the church which is very rare in most churches now.
Father Lindsay Harrison, current parish priest for both Holy Name of Mary and St. Declan’s in Darling provides the historical background to the installation of the new altar. After the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) a number of changes occurred in Roman Catholic worship, two of the most prominent being the change from Latin to the vernacular in liturgies and the priest facing toward the congregation instead of away from them. This change in direction was facilitated by the construction of new freestanding altars. In many older churches the original altars were built near the sanctuary wall and had high rear façades. Unfortunately in many Catholic churches these original elaborate altars were torn down in the decades following Vatican II. At Holy Name of Mary Church, the original marble high altar is still intact and is used to reserve the Blessed Sacrament (the Eucharistic bread consecrated at Mass) while the altar of sacrifice at which the priest presides is located in front of it. It is this newer and simpler wooden altar of sacrifice, installed around 1962, that is being replaced.
In the early Church Christians were persecuted and often had to gather to worship in private, if not secret. There was a custom of celebrating the Eucharist on or near the tomb of a particular martyr on the anniversary of his or her death. When the Church became legal for the first time in the Roman Empire in the fourth century church buildings began to be built. Many of these early church buildings were constructed over the tombs of famous martyrs (e.g. St Peter’s Basilica in Rome) but later it became more practical in building churches to simply enclose a small piece of the bodily remains of a martyr or saint (i.e. a relic) in the altar stone on which the Eucharist was celebrated. In the original high altar at Holy Name of Mary Church are relics of the martyrs St. Irenaeus and St. Marcellinus. At our September 12th dedication, the Archbishop will be inserting a relic of the beloved Saint André Bessette (1845–1937), “Brother André” of Montreal into a cavity in the new altar.
The artisan for the new altar is Mr. John Smit of Dunrobin. Mr Smit has previously built altars for St. Isidore Parish in South March and Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church in Braeside. Accompanying the new altar is a matching ambo from which Holy Scripture is read. A lectern will complete the trio. Mr. Smit will be in attendance for the altar blessing as will the donors of the altar, ambo and lectern.
The blessing of the new altar will take place in Holy Name of Mary Church at 7 pm on September 12, 2013 with a reception at the church to follow. All are welcome.