Just as you do not know the path of the wind, and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes everything.”
Jeannie Petrus | Freelance writer
The verse above, from Ecclesiastes 11:5, is kind of what Father Charlie Ray, pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Isle Brevelle, was thinking when the Confraternity of Christian Mothers asked him what type of memorial they could give the church in celebration of their 100th Anniversary.
“The ladies of the Confraternity of Christian Mothers wanted to do something special for the church that would highlight motherhood and would serve as a reminder of the link between motherhood and the Church,” said Fr. Charlie.
“I immediately suggested a new altar – where the body and soul of the Church are joined together through motherhood.”
The ladies of the Confraternity of Christian Mothers were ecstatic about the idea of donating a new altar to the church and the journey of creating a new altar began.
Before becoming a priest, Fr. Charlie studied architecture at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He pulled out his drafting table and dusted off his old drafting tools and got to work.
“I had two ideas for the front of the altar, so I drew two different designs. I knew I wanted to keep the architectural theme of the church, including its arches and columns, and I also wanted to preserve some of the components of the old altar into the new,” said Fr. Charlie.
With design ideas on paper, Fr. Charlie visited Ken Foy, a local wood craftsman, who, only a few years earlier, had constructed two small side altars for St. Augustine and one for its mission, St. Anne in Old River.
“Fr. Charlie and I had worked on other projects before together and had become close friends,” so I didn’t hesitate when he asked me to do another project with him,” Foy said.
Over the next few weeks, Foy and Fr. Charlie collaborated on the designs for the new altar. What started out as an altar with intricate designs in the wood on one side, quickly expanded into using both of Fr. Charlie’s designs, one on each side of the altar, and then two more on each side. The intention was to allow the altar to be turned around during the year exposing a different.
“During Ordinary Time of the liturgical year, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) side of the altar faces the people,” said Fr. Charlie. “Then, from the beginning of Advent to the end of the Christmas season, the altar can be turned around so that the Nativity (birth of Jesus) side of the altar faces the people.”
The ends of the altar include the Baptism of Jesus on one side and the Resurrection of Jesus on the other. The stone from the old altar was repurposed on the new one for the top and the arches from the original altar rails were used in the design.
It took Foy about six weeks to complete the altar. He used solid red oak and mostly glue to put it together. It measures 7 feet long, 4 feet wide and 42 inches tall. Each of the two fronts of the altar were 3.5 inches thick pieces of wood and weighed 200 pounds each.
“To transfer the design to the wood, I used a CNC Router, which generated the etchings on the wood using computer software,” said Foy. “It took eight hours to do the rough wood etchings and then another 16 hours of ‘finishing’ by hand. The wood was then stained and sealed with lacquer for a lasting shine.
As in all Catholic Church altars, a first-class relic of a saint is always sealed within the altar. Inside the new altar are two relics — one of St. Augustine of Hippo, who was a famous philosopher and theologian that lived from 354 – 430 AD and another relic of his mother, St. Monica, who prayed for her wayward son, Augustine, for 30 years before he converted and became a doctor of the Church.
“I can’t tell you how excited Fr. Charlie was after seeing his designs become a piece of art in the wood,” said Foy. “It made me happy to see him so excited about this project.”
On the day of the transfer of the finished altar from Foy’s workshop on Taylor Road to St. Augustine Church in Isle Brevelle, about 30 men from the church picked up the 1,200 pound altar, loaded it on a trailer and took it to its resting place in the sanctuary of the church.
“There were no lifts or dollies or anything,” said Foy. “Just human strength that moved that big ole thing. Amazing.”
On May 8, (Mother’s Day), Bishop Robert Marshall of the Diocese of Alexandria, celebrated a special Mass at St. Augustine to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Confraternity of Christian Mothers and to consecrate the new altar.
“I’m so proud of this new beautiful altar,” said Fr. Charlie. “I want to thank the ladies of the Confraternity of Christian Mothers for their gift of this altar, and to Ken Foy, for his superior craftsmanship in creating this. I think it is a beautiful addition to our church that is sure to be appreciated by the people here for generations to come.”