Marking the Seasons of the Church

(This is an expanded version of a story that ran in the April 2018 edition of The Record.)

The beauty that fills our nave reflects and inspires our liturgy every week, and the altar guild’s quiet, artistic ministry plays no small part in our liturgical seasons, feast days and Ordinary Sundays. We asked some of the members – Julie Danstrom, Pat Skelton and Lana Tucker – about their work.

Members commit to two weeks of service every three months, helping prepare for services including baptisms, funerals, weddings, weekly chapel and the sacraments for off-site services including the clergy visits to nursing homes, as well as taking care of the linens, candles, flowers, silver and more.

“It is more than just arranging flowers,” points out Lana Tucker. “It is everything from seeing to details like the candles being filled with oil for the services, to the clergy having fresh bottles of waters in their seats, to the more obvious duties of dressing the altars and preparing the sacraments.

“In addition, many people may not know that men are welcome to serve on the altar guild. Even if they have no interest in flower arranging, there are many other duties they can take on.”

“Each season brings a different emphasis,” says Danstrom. “Preparing for Lent and the Easter season from Ash Wednesday through Pentecost remains one of the most challenging for the altar guild, starting with burning the palms from the previous years for ashes.” The hangings change from purple to red to black; there are palm crosses and palm fronds, the stripping of the altar and the riot of flowers on Easter.

Pat Skelton has been on the altar guild for 35 years, and she’s served as funeral coordinator and guild coordinator at different points.

“My work varies from week to week with the filling in for another member’s time off, coordinating funerals held in the church, team duties usually every three months, clearing the early service and setting up communion for the next service on Sunday mornings,” says Skelton. “I also do baptismal towels for the babies and some small linens that we need or need to repair.

“We have many old silver pieces that are very special to us that I love to use,” says Skelton, “especially for Easter and Christmas, though they’re not always practical for large services. The red Coronation vestments are my favorite ones and should be used more often.”

“The altar guild is sometimes known as ‘God’s housekeepers,'” says Danstrom. “The ministry of the altar guild is to offer our gifts to the parish by creating a beautiful worship space through the flowers, hangings and service setups for Eucharist, weddings, funerals, baptisms and all services at St. John’s. There’s a lovely balance between the practical and the spiritual.”

Asked about any particular memories – moving or funny – they shared some moments:

“If you ever notice a panicked look, even if very brief, on the face of a clergy member during a service, it probably means that one of us forgot something, like the host wafer or the wine in the flagon,” says Tucker. “Fortunately, the clergy are very experienced in recovering from surprises, and we keep backup sacraments on hand.”

The work of the altar guild is a ministry and an art.

“As I sat in church on Palm Sunday and took in the beautiful red of the hangings and the arrangement of palms, I knew that was a visible expression of how we have chosen to mark that day in the church calendar,” says Tucker. “I believe the appearance of the chancel, including our beautiful stained glass window, is part of what helps us separate ourselves from our routines and become more involved in worship. I also consider it an honor and a blessing to be involved in preparing the sacraments shared by all of us as representative of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

Pat Skelton: “I have always felt that the ministry of our altar guild work is part of who I am.”

More thoughts from our altar guild…

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