Pope Francis’ Boat Altar Reminds Me of the Boat Pulpit—Even a Boat Church

Last week when the Pope visited Lampedusa, the media made much of the simple altar on which he celebrated Mass for the immigrants.  The “boat altar,” they called it—and so it was.  The blog Abbey Roads explained it:

He celebrated a penitential Mass on an altar constructed in the form of a boat, reminiscent of the boat carrying migrants who drowned when it was shipwrecked.  The altar was a humble gesture, a reminder, a votive offering from the poor, in honor of the poorest of the poor.  Christ was crucified upon such an altar, the crucifix was a contemptuous, disgraceful instrument of death, made from unrefined, crude timber.  The suffering Christ was condemned as a criminal, he was filthy, sweaty, bloody, a man others looked away from in disgust, despised and lowly, held in no esteem… Before execution, he was presented to the jeering crowd, ‘tackily’ dressed as a mock king, with a ‘corny’ crown of thorns.  

My fellow blogger Father Dwight Longenecker, noting all the hullabaloo on-line over the unconventional setting, called our attention to another church which featured what he called a “boat pulpit.”

“If you caught the corny boat-altar on which Pope Francis celebrated Mass,” said Father Longenecker,

“here’s one for you which goes one better.  It is called the Galilean pulpit and it is in the church of St. Leonard’s on Sea in East Sussex in England.  This unusual piece of church furniture was commissioned by the Anglican vicar from a genuine boat builder on the Sea of Galilee.  St. Leonard’s is part of Hastings which is a fishing port.”

“Harrumph,” I thought.  “If there’s a boat altar and a boat pulpit, I’ll bet there’s a boat church!”  So I set out to find one.

Sure enough.  At the click of the mouse, I found three; and I’m pretty sure the nautical theme is picked up in seaside parishes and churches that I haven’t yet discovered.  Here, though, a whirlwind tour of the unsightly ships.

The website Journey to Orthodoxy introduced me to the Prince St. Vladimir—actually an old boat which has been converted into a floating church.  The Prince Saint Vladimir carries sacred relics to remote areas along the Volga River, reaching out to people in remote areas who might otherwise never have an opportunity to reverence them.  According to Orthodox blogger Fr. John:

This isn’t the world’s first floating church, communities living on water have built plenty of them all around the world, but the Prince Saint Vladimir (named after the saint who baptized Russia) is the world’s first self-propelled chapel boat. Built back in 2004, the unique church was designed to reach even the shallowest waters, so that all the people of the Volvograd region could have access to a church and priest. There were two other similar churches built before, but because they were practically converted barges, they could only be moved by tugboats. The Prince Saint Vladimir is, however, a self-propelled craft.

On September 13, 2010, the great river voyage of the Prince Saint Vladimir began. The floating church will travel around 3,000 kilometers along the shores of the Volga, from the river mouth, all the way to Moscow. It will make stops in both cities and small communities along the shores, allowing people access to relics of eight great saints from the era of the Undivided Church. Its voyage will take the sacred ship to areas that have suffered from drought and terrible wildfires, and the Russian Church hopes it will bring comfort to locals.

Along with the captain and ship crew, a priest will be on board the Prince Saint Vladimir at all times, and he will celebrate the Sacred Liturgy at every stop.

And there’s this one:  Igreija do Barco em Caxinas (Church of the Boat), a church with a ship-like form.  This church is located in Vila do Conde, Portugal.  Each year on the first Sunday of August, the parish celebrates the Lord of the Navigators.

In Georgia, the United Methodist Church has its own version of “Boat Church.”  From a pontoon boat afloat on Lake Blackshear, the pastor preaches to his flock, gathered on lawn chairs and pulled up to the dock in their own boats.  There’s no dress code, collections are taken in minnow baskets, and dogs are always welcome.

I’m sort of reminded of Jesus, preaching from a boat.


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  • DeaconsBench

    Lest we forget: the Church herself is the Barque of Peter.

    • moseynon

      And the word “nave” (where most parishioners stand or sit) is derived
      from the Latin word for ship, navis. Some churches have a ceiling with exposed wooden ribs, symbolic of the ribs in a boat which hold it together against the pounding of the waves.

  • Gail Finke

    I love that Volga church boat!

  • StumbleBumble

    Your article made me smile after so much negative press. I found the boat altar Papa Francis used simple and apropos for the occasion. The Mass was reverent and lovingly celebrated. My hope is that the image of that boat altar will help us remember our less fortunate brothers and sisters and in so doing, we will lift them up in prayer to Christ our Lord.

  • There used to be a lot of Anglican boat churches in Canada- I wonder if they’re still operating? A famous novel, _I Heard the Owl Call my Name_ was about a vicar assigned to one because he was dying, his parishioners were First Nations tribes up and down the British Columbia coast.

  • Heather

    There’s also the Maronite (Eastern Rite Catholic, in communion with Rome) basilica at Harissa, Lebanon, at the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon. It’s meant to evoke a ship, both the ship of the Church and the ships their Phoenician ancestors sailed in.