In US workshop, an altar for Pope Francis takes shape
Deacon David Cahoon is a carpenter on the holiest of deadlines: to build the altar from which Pope Francis will celebrate Mass before an al fresco crowd of thousands in Washington next month.
“Thirty-seven days left,” he said Monday, sweat beading on his brow, as the altar and accompanying papal chair took shape in a dusty cabinetmaker’s shop an hour’s drive from the US capital.
“One day late is not going to make it… but I’m honored and blessed to do it,” he said.
Graceful in its simplicity, the altar pays hommage to the Vatican’s recent encyclical letter to bishops on the environment and global warming with its use of recycled fiberboard and American-sourced poplar and cherry veneer.
Besides the papal chair, it will be complemented by 12 other pieces, including a set of eight deacons’ chairs and an ambo, or lectern, from which the Gospel will be read.
“We’re not using South American stuff from the rain forest,” Cahoon, 58, told AFP with pride as his partner Carlos Hernandez put sandpaper to some rough edges.
– Like Jesus, a carpenter –
“Deacon Dave” — who, following in the footsteps of Jesus, found his calling in carpentry — is no stranger to the pressures of building to papal order.
After all, he built the altar used by the late pope Benedict XVI on the last visit to the United States by a Roman Catholic pontiff, back in April 2008.
“‘Hey, Deacon, you think you’d like to do it again?'” he remembered a bishop asking him after a confirmation ceremony this summer at his local parish in rural Maryland.
“So it developed from there.”
Pope Francis arrives in Washington on September 22 on a tour — his first since his investiture — that will also see him in New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The new altar will be a centerpiece of the Mass that Pope Francis will celebrate on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The basilica, in northeast Washington, is the biggest Roman Catholic house of worship in North America, and one of the 10 largest in the world, with one million visitors a year.
From the altar that Cahoon is building, Pope Francis will canonize Junipero Serra, the Spanish missionary who in the 18th century introduced Christianity to California.
– Winning design –
The altar’s design is the result of a competition among students at the Catholic University of America (CUA), next door to the basilica, that involved 18 teams.
It salutes the Argentine pontiff’s Jesuit background, with four columns to signify the four vows taken by members of the Society of Jesus.
Together those four columns create three arches, representing the Holy Trinity. A removal stone slab will rest on top of the altar.
“To be honest, all of our inspiration came right from the basilica,” said Joe Taylor, 23, a member of the winning team who has just graduated from CUA’s architecture program.
“We took a really contextualist approach,” he told AFP. “We wanted to design an altar that looked like it belonged to the basilica and had always been there.”
That’s just as well, because plans call for the altar to remain a permanent fixture of the basilica, built in the Byzantine-Romanesque style, after the papal visit.
In his baggy carpenter’s trousers and the dark blue T-shirt of the woodworking company, aptly named the Saint Joseph Carpentry Shop, Cahoon said he feels “lucky and graced.”
His past commissions have ranged from fixing the steeple of his small parish church to restoring the pews in historic Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, a favorite place of worship for many American presidents.
As a devout Catholic, however, making things with his own hands for a pope is like nothing else, and Cahoon said he is “deeply excited” by the upcoming visit.
“It’s like our father coming home on a wonderful visit,” he said.
“And we’re kind of bringing out the good china to celebrate a meal with our papa.”