Altar Linen Project

Recently we heard from Maureen who completed this beautiful altar linen using one of the patterns here on our website. Congratulations! It took her over 500 HOURS of work.  Elizabeth Morgan, author of Sewing Church Linens, helped with the making up of the fair linen.  This is magnificent- thanks for sharing your photos, Maureen.  Christmas was a perfect time to present this wonderful gift at the altar. 


O Holy Night

The flowers are watered and arranged, the immaculate linens pressed and lovingly smoothed into place, the candles are waiting to be lit in their gleaming brass candlesticks.  The sacristy is aglow and waiting for the services to begin. The church is filled with the fragrant scent of evergreens, incense and flowers.  Many hours of preparation have gone into making this night of nights one of peace and calm, of order and wonder.  All over the world tonight altar guild workers  and sacristans will slip quietly into their pew and look up at the altar and creche their own hands made ready to welcome the newborn King.  Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Gaudete Sunday

Twice a year the beautiful rose vestments come out of storage.  I often receive requests for rose vestments, and no other color is so hard to supply. In fact, I have never received a set of rose vestments to relocate. There’s always plenty of green, and a fair amount of white vestments .  Red and violet are more difficult.  Since rose is used only twice a year in Lent and Advent (Laetare and Gaudete Sundays), they remain in storage and in great condition with minimum fading and wear.  Some parishes have had their rose vestments for over a century!  Conceived as a “refreshment” from the penitential season’s violet or purple, the rose candle and rose hangings and vestments are much-enjoyed by the congregation.  Below is a handsome High Solemn Mass set featuring chasuble, tunicle and dalmatic. I am sorry I cannot identify the clergy, the parish is All Saints. Do you have a photo of your rose set to share?

Urgent Message from R.I. Altars

The unbelievable happened- our former address was stolen right from under my nose when the domain expired without my receiving a renewal. I have had to register under a new domain name. This one is secure now for five years.  Please change your links and booksmarks to

You will note that the only change is .com to .org  Am I distressed over this? You bet!  Apparently it is perfectly legal.  Any individual can watch a site with high traffic and scoop up the traffic for any product by jumping on the name of the site when it expires and keeping its content on the site under fraudulent usage.  I am very sorry for the inconvenience, and I imagine this is a lesson for us all in these “modern times”.  The internet is a ruthless place with not a great deal of courtesy and a great deal of unscrupulousness. I guess I should be thankful that the new site owner is only advertising pills. The more clicks to the site they get, the more cash they earn- so what they wanted was our high number of accesses daily, not information on altar guilds!  It could be worse. So, welcome to the new address which is now protected!

This Sunday: Reign of Christ


This Sunday, November 21st will mark the Feast of Christ the King, or on some calendars, the Reign of Christ.  This is a “white feast” using your very best sacristy frontal of white, gold or silver or perhaps white with a touch of the metallics.  This can be a wonderful Sunday for special flowers before the simple greens of Advent will take precedence.  Golden yellow and white flowers in shining brass vases are a good choice, with any statues or shrines of Christ embellished especially for this feast.  The photo above is the high altar at St. John the Evangelist, Newport.  With a central tabernacle, the arrangement is easily accomplished with a plastic window box liner and three bricks of Oasis fitted on the gradine behind the tabernacle with the height of the roses soaring up behind the altar cross.  Allow a little extra time Saturday for the team to prepare for this important feast. 


*Advent rings should now be at the florist if you are sending out for your Advent wreath.  Last year’s Advent candles, if they are still tall enough to use again this year, may be refreshed with a little salad oil on a soft cloth.  The shine should return with some buffing.  Trim the wicks and clean any debris from the candle burning “well”.  It is helpful to use a candle follower on the Advent candle wicks either of brass or glass and keep the wreath positioned out of drafts to ensure even burning.

Summer’s ending

With hurricane Earl on the way up the cost and the news that we have had 33 days thus far of over 90 degree days this long summer, what a blessing to contemplate Autumn on the doorstep.  Sacristies are smelling fusty, flowers are wilting on the altar, and just about everything needs a cleaning and freshening.  I have been in hospital with kidney stones and tooth extractions and am now glad to be back at the computer.  Most gardens have taken such a beating this summer in churchyards everywhere, I decided to postpone our church garden crawl until next spring- May looks like a good month.

I recently was looking at a beautiful frontal which was done by the Sisters of St. John Baptist, when the order was in New York.  It was done for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Newport for St. John the Evangelist on burnt red-orange velvet and has the 7 sacraments in symbols with angels.  I shall dig out a photo of this to post tonight. It made me visually try to recollect all the symbols for the sacraments.  Without looking at the drawing below- can you remember the sacraments and their symbols!?

Sacristy Design-We get mail

“Presently, my firm is redesigning the sacristy at our church which was originally built in @ 1950. This is the only article that I have been able to find on the subject although our clergy has tried to contact a number of churches for suggestions. Thank you!

Lucille McKey, IIDA “
Thanks for your email Lucille.  Yes, finding information about how to design a working sacristy is nearly impossible.  There are no sources.  Of course common sense is always an ingredient and discussions with altar guild workers who have many years’ experience with the requirements can be beneficial.  Altar Guild workers are frankly brilliant at making do and often have to be very innovative in making things work in unbelievably cramped and challenging spaces. 
 To be able to get it right from the beginning is wonderful, so put a lot of thought into the layout.  Hire professionals and keep in mind any historic spaces or architectural elements in your church which should be conserved as you are renovating for the sacristy.  Work with the style and architecture of your edifice.  Here is my list of absolute basics: 
1.  Will there be a separate priest vesting sacristy or will one space have to serve for everything?  Christ Church in Westerly is very lucky to have a small vesting sacristy for clergy and across the chancel,  a large, airy working sacristy for the guild.  If you can manage this, life will be simpler. Note the height of this vesting space in the photo below.  This is convenient and one does not have to bend over a low counter top.
2.  When measuring for horizontal storage, take the WIDEST chasuble you have in inventory, lay it flat and measure across and add on a little for maneuvering.  This should be the width of your horizontal flat storage drawer.  There ought to be at least FIVE horizontal chasuble drawers labelled top to bottom: green, white, purple, red, Lenten array (or other color such as blue, black, floral, unbleached linen Lenten array, etc.)  It is helpful to store the whole Low Mass set together.  In this photo below from St. Stephen’s House, Oxford, England, note the eucharistic set stored in horizontal fashion and a clean white cotton liner all ready to cover up the set- excellent! Better still if the fiddleback chasuble could lie flat.
3. You will need a deep pull out drawer for small eucharistic linens. I like to line these with damask fabric so the drawer looks beautiful when the linens are laid out inside. 
4.  Two drawers, deep ones, will be needed for rolled FAIR  linens.  Measure your LONGEST fair linen on a roller.  That will be the length measurement for the drawer plus a few extra inches.
5.  Measure your longest small linen, such as credence shelf or table linen.  These should also be stored rolled and kept separate from the fair altar linens as they tend to get mixed up if stored with the fair linens. A label with the type of linen marked IN PENCIL lightly is a help.
6.  Measure any pulpit fall or lectern hanging or Bible markers at the widest part and their length to get drawer dimensions.  These can be stored flat if you do not store them with your frontals. It is easier to store them separately.
7.  You will need a double sink, stainless steel is best. Lining it with a plastic dishpan will save dings and cracks in glass cruets from happening.  Another small sink which drains into the ground is desirable ( a piscina) for pouring down consecrated wine and wafer residue when washing vessels.
8.  You will need frontal storage for heavy paraments. Flat storage or vertical hanging storage are both good options. Measure the widest frontal from side to side to obtain the width and add on a few inches extra for good measure.  If you opt for vertical hanging storage, then you will need suspension dowels to drape the frontals over.  They should be sanded very smooth and sealed with polyurethane to prevent snagging.  Always put the lining next to the dowel.  You may wish to have a separate space to hang your large funeral pall apart from the frontals.  Be sure the height of the cabinet unit allows for the frontal to hang freely down without touching the bottom of the cabinet. A top opening can make getting frontals in and out tricky, a front opening of two doors swinging OUT from the center  is preferable.
9.  Additional small drawers near the sink are great for storage of cloths, cleaning products, and small items.  An ironing board hanger which has the built-in iron holder is a godsend and can be mounted inside a closet.
10. A cork bulletin board is a must for posting rotas and announcements and a calendar.
11. A closet deep enough to hang chasubles with plenty of air space between vestments is a must-have if you opt for vertical hanging storage instead.  A ventilation panel in the lower door is also helpful for air circulation, a light inside the closet is useful. Use hangers which have the curved shoulders, usually made of resin, – never unpadded wire hangers!  You may wish to have a separate closet for albs and surplices if space is available.
12.  Chalice safe:  Measure the height of the tallest metal vessel and add extra inches for easy access.  The chalice safe should have a LOCK.  There should be ample room to set up a communion chalice with pall, and a breadbox or ciborium at the least.  Some churches which have daily communion actually have 7 small safes labelled for daily Mass, Mon- Sun!  Imagine that! Below is San Giovanni Rotundo showing the 7 chalice safes with communion set up in each. Wow!
13.  Vessel storage cabinet for extra eucharistic vessels, wafers and wine, etc. Always store wine away from any heat source and light.
14. A roomy storage cabinet for broom, vacuum, dustpan, cleaning items which are tall.  Hang your ironing board and iron inside.
15. Floral arranging supply storage:  room for Oasis, vases, pruners, liners, holiday special mechanics for floral display.
16.  Wedding and baptism supply storage for kneelers, pew markers, ewer, candleholder,  aisle runner, any special equipment used for occasional special services and sacraments.
17.  A hard-wearing countertop surface which resists stains and is easy to sponge off.
 18.  A bookshelf for reference books is a plus.
19.  Don’t neglect good lighting, and a light wall paint. I do have a horror,however, of painting over beautiful wood if it is of architectural or historical significance just to make a sacristy “brighter”.  Improve the lighting instead.
20.  A specified place for plastic waste bins which should be emptied frequently of rotting floral material.
21.  Drying rack for wet cloths.  These usually are hung near or over the sink and fan out from the wall about 10 inches with about 4-5 separate hanging bars.  This attaches  on the wall.
22.  The door to the sacristy should have  a sturdy lock and either each member should have a key, or else the key should be hidden in a place known to the altar guild and clergy.
23.  A carpet may be cushy to stand on and may look great but it is not practical.  Wall to wall carpet  holds dustmites and mold spores like mad. A tile or wooden floor is easily cleaned.  A rubber work mat is great at the sink or in any area where one must stand in one spot for a length of time.  Save the fancy oriental carpet for the priest’s vesting sacristy.  That space can be made very beautiful with a prie-dieu, framed artwork,  and a very handsome horizontal chasuble “press”.  I particularly like to have framed vesting prayers, a shelf for books and notes, a clock, a beautiful religious picture or icon  and cross, a damask vestment pad on which to lay out vestments, a small chair, a spot to have tissues, a pitcher of cold water and paper cups and a jar of cough drops, a calendar, notepaper and pencils,and a few comforts. Just look at the floor at Saint Paul the Apostle in the Diocese of Joliet! Clean enough to eat off of and easy care.
 24.  A safe is recommended if very valuable or historic vessels are in the inventory.
I know there may be more ideas out there. Please send in comments and photos of your good ideas in your sacristy. .  If you are fortunate enough to be building a sacristy from scratch, you have a wonderful and rare opportunity to customize it to fit every need. Renovations later are expensive so there is every incentive to plan carefully first.  Also check Craig’s List, Ebay and local classified ads, many churches which are being closed or are merging with another parish have cabinets and vestment presses, vessels safes and more fittings FOR SALE very reasonably-priced! In closing, gasp at this glorious sacristy in France at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Orleans.  Once there were so many beautiful sacristies in America. Around the late 50’s, early 60’s so much beautiful wood, marble, and other quality materials were replaced and heaved out in the wish to “modernize”, to the deep regret of us now.  Point to ponder.

Vestment Lace

One of my first big undertakings in the sacristy was to restore some old alb laces found in a suitcase in the top of a closet. The strips were tiny brown balls and looked nothing like lace.  After gently unraveling the dirty bundles, the bobbin lace revealed itself in all its splendor.  Old laces may never again be truly white-white, but you can come pretty close with some tender loving care and patience.

Most of the best 19th century bobbin lace came from Brussels, Venice, or England.  Some convents began lace schools to teach young women a trade.  Bobbin lace is worked on a cushion with fine linen or cotton thread, pins and spindle-like bobbins.  Hand-made lace is highly collectible and valuable.  Eventually machine-made laces proved cheaper and faster to make, but did not have the gossamer delicacy and airy-ness of handmade.

I first called Katy Kliot at LACIS in Berkely, California (see our links) who suggested using BIZ to clean and brighten the laces.  I found that soaking the laces, and changing the water as it became soiled, loosened up most of the dirt and dust.  Laces must be handled gently while washing so as not to break the “brides”- or the thin connecting threads which hold together the motifs. Sometimes I slipped a spatula under the laces to turn them. Never wring or twist lace, or lift it up while it is saturated- the weight of the water will snap the threads.  This takes patience.  When the Biz has been added to warm water, agitate the detergent to a froth with your hands , then lay in the lace for the soakings. I like to use a plastic dish pan for this process.  When the rinsing phase is through, lay the lace on a clean white terry towel and gently pat the lace in an up and down motion which will absorb a great deal of the water.  Gently press the lace out with your hand on the towel, smoothing the motifs into place.  I then place the towel on my picnic table out in the sun where the brightening rays will do wonders for whitening the lace.  When completely dry, store in acid -free tissue,  as flat as space permits.

Insertion laces are easy to spot, the edges will be perfectly straight on both sides.  Alb and surplice  hem or sleeve laces usually have one straight edge and one scalloped or irregular patterned edge.  Insertion lace was applied to hems of surplices or albs, then the back cloth was cut away to reveal the lace in front.  Generally priests, bishops, Masters of Ceremony, and older altar servers wear the insertion style laces, very young servers have hanging lace on their cottas at the hem.

In the photo above I am getting the procession ready. Young Lucas has a stubborn cowlick that won’t lay down!   Do you have an Acolyte Matron to assist before services?  If there is a large acolyte guild, one or two people dedicated to keeping the vestments tidy and assisting with young members can be a godsend- and a lot of fun.  Youngsters often need prompting to wash hands, comb hair, stand up straight, be quiet, and be ready on time. The position of Acolyte Matron is seen often in England for servers and young choirs.

Clergy always appreciates clean, laid-out vestments, ready to put on with no worries.  Lace is making a comeback in the new vestment catalogues. Mostly it is detachable and synthetic on albs and easy to launder.  In the good old days, nuns loosely stitched lace on so it could be removed for laundering.  Now we have snaps and Velcro!  All photos above are from Saint John the Evangelist in Newport, December 2000.

Yes- that is Father Douglas Burger from Woonsocket in the photo above, serving at Midnight Mass as Deacon in his dalmatic.

Recruiting for the Altar Guild

Photo from St. Peter’s in Columbia, Tennesee

This has been a week for receiving calls or emails about a problem many guilds share across the state- and the country.  How do we entice new members to altar guild work?  Along with this plaintive cry comes an affiliated sidebar, “Our gals are getting weary of the “holy housework”.”  It’s a busy world today, with every hour crammed with places to go and things to do.  For all the modern conveniences, it seems we are expected to do more and do it faster.  Some guild members have been on the job for decades, some directresses have stayed on because nobody wants to take over the responsibilities.   Burn-out is an expected commodity and the feeling guilty part about having this slump is not surprising.  Here are some ideas I have found which work to inject some energy in the crucial ministry we perform in our parishes.

1.  Have regular meetings of the guild, maybe monthly with a summer break.

2.  Schedule your meetings at a time convenient for working members or members with young children.  For instance, Thursday morning at 10 a.m. will reduce dramatically the possibility of attending for many.  Early evening around 7-7:30 is an excellent window to accommodate young families and working persons.

3.  Sons, husbands, fathers, and MEN in general are wonderful candidates for altar guild work.  More and more guilds are discovering that women are not the only possibility for altar guild members!  The guys are great at brass-polishing, handyman chores, church garden maintenance, constructing much-needed spaces and shelving in the sacristy, and yes- I have seen beautiful flower-arranging  work done by men, and even ironing!  One husband member made an ingenious cruet -drying device using wooden dowels.  The cruets are washed and inverted over the dowels to dry. Tiverton has a fantastic mother and son brass polishing team- you should see that brass shine at Holy Trinity!

4. Have an annual Christmas party and June end-of-year luncheon at a local restaurant or in a member’s home.

5. Consider an “Open Sacristy” one Sunday in your church.  After services, invite the congregation to see the sacristy.  Have some of the most beautiful hangings and metalware on display, and be on hand to answer questions.  You have no idea how many times I have heard parishioners shrink away from going near a sacristy- “Oh, I am not supposed to go in there”!  You’d be surprised at how many folks think something mysterious happens in sacristies, just for the special few to enjoy.  Yes, there are wonderful mysteries in our church to be sure, but the sacristy and the work done there should be information everyone can access without trepidation.

   6.  Offer training for probationers.  The director should be able to facilitate this.  Often newbies are scared of making a big mistake.  Nobody is born knowing all about altar guild work.  Training is fun.  Assign a new candidate to a long-time member until he/she feels comfortable.  Every member should know ALL facets of altar guild work.

7. Every member should have their own altar guild manual. Second- hand Diggs or Sturges/Gent or Edith Perry manuals are available through Morehouse or on Ebay or through used books services like alibris, Bookfind or 

8.  Plan a parish visit to another sacristy.  Your altar guild can pay a call on a nearby sacristy (Saturday mornings are perfect). Then reciprocate by having the host guild visit YOUR sacristy.  Refreshments and a social time after will add some fun and you will enjoy seeing other ways of doing things, exchanging products tips, seeing vestments, needlepoint, metalware, etc. is great fun and can be very useful and informative.

9. Invite a speaker to a regular meeting.  Flower arranging, textiles, history of vestments, conservation, church architecture, are all fun topics. Refreshment and education for your guild members is critical.

10. Guild work days can foster a sense of teamwork.  Cleaning out closets, polishing and dusting and a general overhaul twice a year can be fun if done as a guild.  Afterward, a lunch and social time at a local eatery is a great reward!  Also consider an embroidery or needlepoint circle if you have enough women interested in handwork.  Old linens can be recycled into small linens, new small linens can be made, repairs done on a guild “Sewing Afternoon”. 

11. Invite your Diocesan or Provincial Directress to pay a call to one of your guild meetings.

12. Don’t be afraid to “take a break”.  At one time Directresses used to serve no more than 3 years, then were replaced by a new person.  The rector was in charge of this appointment.  Sometimes a year off to pursue other ministry work in the church or in the community can recharge the batteries, and you will return refreshed and renewed to the altar guild.

13. Visit museums to see religious art and textiles- and read about your “craft” to learn the history of vestments, textiles, church architecture.  The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has wonderful historic vestments.

14.  In September, a Ministries Night in your guild hall may be just the thing!  Each ministry has a table set up, the altar guild may display some vestments, flower arrangement, etc., and have a little printed handout about “What We Do” .  Staff your table with members of the guild who can answer questions.  This is your frontline for recruitment!

15. Ask your rector/vicar to do an “Illustrated Eucharist”.  This is a wonderful teaching opportunity whereby the celebrant explains the WHY of everything that happens at the Eucharist as it is being celebrated.  As each vestment is put on, the priest will explain what it means and where it comes from. Why do we genuflect, why is the Host and chalice elevated?  To learn about the “equipment”, ritual, and ceremonial of our church is  important for altar guild members and congregants alike.

16. Consider a junior altar guild for the youth in the parish.

17. Bring a daughter, grand daughter, niece, nephew, etc.  to your team work day to help and see how things are done.

18.  Invite your rector to a meeting.  He/she may love an opportunity to offer appreciation for work done by the guild, suggest ideas, discuss vestments and needs for the sacristy, etc.

Don’t be afraid to suggest ideas to your parish directress. She is there to coordinate the work of the guild and to keep a lively, inspired and dedicated team on task.  Input from guild members is always valuable for directors/directresses to hear.  Don’t be afraid to try something new!

St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea


Sorry to be missing in action for so long.  June flew by helping my youngest to relocate to Hartford.  It was a busy month.  In May the parish administrators gathered for our annual luncheon.  This year St. Peter’s in Narragansett was our host church.  St. Peter’s is one of the most beautiful churches in the Diocese with its magnificent Gothic Revival architecture and Victorian stained glass.  The high altar stained glass gives a golden glow as the story of St. Elizabeth and the miracle of the roses is portrayed.  When the sun shines through this East window, the entire nave is bathed in the warm hues.

Also remarkable is the Victorian stencilling within the chancel, executed in the warm terracotta, ochre and moss green palette of the pre-Raphaelites.  What a blessing this remarkable decoration was not covered up with tan paint as was the “style” at the turn of the 20th century when new fads were taken up.

The stained glass is worth the trip in itself, with a magnificent Tiffany angel and a seagull over the waves also from the Tiffany studio.  The gull had to be back lit when the guild hall was built and covered the window from natural light.  There are many fine examples of Victorian glass, some with fascinating and tragic stories.  Varina Jefferson Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, although a lady of the old South, was much admired by the ladies of the town when she would visit Narragansett in summer, and her memorial window bears her name.  A striking window featuring a lovely angel and three cherubs has a sad story.  Della Waters of Fall River, who had suffered from severe depression and who had recently been in a sanitarium, took her three young children and was heading on a Fall River boat from New York City back to her family home in Fall River when she, in a fit of despair, threw the children into the ocean and jumped in herself just off Block Island.  Their bodies were never recovered.  The Waters family had a summer home in Narragansett and dedicated this window.

The small sacristy is a model of neatness, and every square inch is utilized.  Note the towel rods on the wall for storing fair linens!  If cleanliness is next to Godliness, St. Peter’s must be very close to heaven.  Do not miss the memorial garden on the west side, which is filled with perennials and herbs and divine roses!

White for Trinity Sunday

Last Sunday altars were ablaze for Pentecost with fiery red “tongues” of gladioli, smoldering tritomas, and sizzling gerberas, but Trinity Sunday will bring a very different approach to the altar flowers. I am a fan of all-white arrangements.  Did you know that the family request for all funeral flowers for Frank Sinatra was for all -white arrangements? (bit of useless trivia).  There is just something elegant about all-white flowers- and as one of my nun teachers at college once said, “Simplicity is the soul of elegance”.

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.

Right now lily of the valley is out in abundance.  Perhaps a fragrant low bowl of these at the end of the aisle or in the narthex or entry would be an idea for Sunday.  Bridal wreath, a type of fluffy white spirea is now in full bloom in its cascading tendrils like a fountain.  Alas, white lilac has come and gone as Trinity is too late for it this year and the New England warm Spring has made everything bloom ahead of schedule.

Bridal Wreath Spirea

Don’t forget flowering trees! The Kousa (Cornus kousa) dogwood has just burst open here in Rhode Island and the sleek green leaves and creamy white stars look divine in brass vases. Nothing else is needed.  White is serene, cooling in humid summery weather, and quietly elegant at all times of year .  Do send us your images of white altar flower arrangements.  You will enjoy this version of St. Patrick’s Breastplate.