How Church Altars are Made and Used

Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons

“Religion Behind the Scenes” spotlights the less discussed, but no less crucial, tasks that keep religious communities running, and the people who make it all happen.

The use of altars as part of worship was introduced at the very beginning of time. Indeed, in the extra-canonical First Book of Adam and Eve (also known as. the Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan) we learn that “Adam and Eve took stones and placed them in the shape of an altar…and offered…upon the altar…an offering unto God.” (23:4-5) Similarly, the biblical book of Genesis informs us: “And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and…offered burnt offerings on the altar” (8:20).

Numerous religious traditions—Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto, and various Pagan traditions—each have a history of altar-use as part of their liturgical practice. In Christianity, all High-Church traditions (e.g., Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Oriental Orthodox, etc.) have consistently used altars as well.

In this installment of Religion Behind the Scenes, we talk with Rick Lair of King Richards—a liturgical design and contracting company that has (for many years) been in the business of building, buying, selling, and installing church altars. Rick, who has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of churches, architecture, and altars, teaches us a bit about altars and how they serve as the focal point of churches and liturgy, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition.

So, tell us about how long you have been involved in the procurement of, design, and installation of altars?

Well, we started the business in 1988, in Chicago. We’ve dealt in antique altars for quite some time, but we didn't start making altars until about ten years ago. Initially, architectural salvage is what we were doing.

I had an environmental contracting business in Chicago and was friends with all of the demo guys. And the long and short of it is, I thought this architectural stuff was pretty cool. My environmental contracting job was so damn boring. And so the architectural interest was really a side hobby. Then, in 1993, the Chicago diocese was the first diocese in the country to do a mass closing; they closed 33 churches on the south side at once. But back then, it was national news for churches to be closed—particularly in those numbers. Today, people don’t think much about it. Anyway, we got exposed to the business through that, and we cleaned out a lot of those churches, collecting statues, altars, and other items. And we thought, like “What are we gonna do with this stuff?” And, all of a sudden, people started coming in—priests and nuns and lay people—wanting to buy the stuff we had acquired. So that's kind of how I got into this, and how our business evolved. Initially, we just delt with the antique items, but then we started making new stuff. Basically, we had the clients coming to us saying, “Oh, this is a really nice altar. We love it. Can we buy it?” Or “It's too big; can you make us a smaller one that looks just like that one?” Now our business it's about 80% new creations, and about 20% antique.


This kind of work—meaning the making of new stone and wood altars—doesn’t seem like a traditional U.S. business. It seems more like an old European trade. Is that accurate?

Well, we're totally involved with the making of the altars, but we don't make them here in Georgia. Right now, all of our altars come from Europe. We make them in Europe. We have a contract with our friends there. We’re not just a rep. I’ve gone over numerous times. And it took about two years to put a deal together with the artisans we partnered with there. We wanted a “real deal.” We didn't want to just be reps. So, we're legal partners. We make all of our wood products there. On the marble altars, we've only used two artisans: one in Carrara and the other in Pietrasanta, Italy.

Is there a job that you’re most proud of, or one that was particularly meaningful or important to you?

Well, in 2019 we did the job in the Panama Cathedral, the Basilica of Santa María la Antigua. It’s the oldest Cathedral in the Americas, and the Holy Father consecrated our altar. We were down there for about two years, and we designed it all. It was some tricky stuff. That was a pretty important job that we’ve done—though we haven’t gotten around to posting it to our website.


Are your altar jobs exclusively for Roman Catholic churches? Or do you do them for other Christian or non-Christian traditions?

Well, it's 99% Catholic, because they're basically the only ones that use a high altar. Now altar tables we've created for the United Methodist Church and for Episcopal or Anglican church buildings. For those denominations we’ve done altar tables and baptismal fonts. But most of the altar work is a Catholic thing.

So you clearly have a fascination with all of this—with church architecture and with the altars at the heart of the churches. Tell us about what draws you to all of that?

Well, I am a marketing guy, actually. So, I like the business from that standpoint. But what drew me to the church side, the altars and the architecture, was just the beauty and the art. I was raised Catholic, but I could have been any denomination and I'd still be in this business. I feel like I’ve found where I should be and what I want to do. I'm sure not doing it for the money! But I could do what I do seven days a week, and I still couldn’t get enough of it. Whether it's playing with all of the pictures I’ve taken of various churches, or the catalogues that just came in from Europe, or the stained glass archive I just acquired in Boston, I'm like a kid at Christmas when all these boxes come in. My fascination covers anything to do with the products themselves. And I pretty much research and study any and all of it—and if I can find a vintage book or article on something related to the field, that’s awesome to me.

Is it the masonry side of the building that you're fascinated with? Is it the religious art in the architecture? What’s your greatest passion or interest?

The architectural side. From a business standpoint, actually, the only thing we do on design is try to not lose money on the job, because there's really no money in it. But it's a passion I have, and what draws me to it is that I love the design. I love trying to create spaces that look the way that churches should; trying to make churches look like churches. (Something a lot of them today don’t.) So yeah, I'm passionate about it, because I just I love it.


Is there a “sacred side” to what you do? Perhaps a sense that you feel like you're creating “sacred space”?

Yeah, there is. That couldn't be more true. And because of that, I'm still wrangling with where you draw the line, because there are a lot of people going over the top these days And, while I appreciate their attempts, some of these churches look and feel like circus tents—if you know what I mean. And that makes me uncomfortable. But, to answer your question, yes, I certainly feel that we're accomplishing something good in what we do—and that makes me feel good.

You don’t see it as much anymore but, say, ten years ago, I saw how our work affected people's lives. When the Catholic Church started closing down church buildings—particularly ten or fifteen years ago—it was largely unheard of at the time. And nobody's been in more closed churches or bought more altars or stained-glass windows than we have here and abroad. And I've seen a lot of churches that were closing and some older women who attended there who would handcuff themselves to the front doors in the hopes of stopping the shutdown of the building. It was happening in Chicago and New England. But fast-forward a decade or two, and it’s not that big of a deal to close a church today. But back then it was just unheard of, and it was sacrilege. People could hardly tolerate seeing things like the high altars being torn down or sold off. When these church buildings were built (in the teens or 1920s), the immigrants who constructed them built them to be here forever. And the people who have worshipped in them for decades felt devastated at the thought that they would be closed down and the contents surpluses. Seeing all of that happen reinforced for me what these altars and church furnishings mean for people. They’re not just “things.” They really do facilitate a sense that the church is “sacred space,” as you called it.

Has the way we build churches today changed from what it used to be?

Yeah. One thing I see is that people want to have it and “have it all” right now. Our ancestors would take ten, twenty, thirty years to build a church. Today, we want one built in months, not years. I’ll get a call from a church that’s closing down, and they’ll say, “We've got this set of stained-glass windows from 1890.” I’ll ask, “So how you know they’re that old?” And they’ll say, “Well, that's when the church was built.” Well, the windows turn out to be from the 1940s—from fifty years after the church was originally build. They didn’t have the money at the time the church was built, so they had to raise the money or save for good quality windows, or whatever. They didn’t “get it all” on day one. Today, it seems like everybody's got to “have it all” right now. And too many congregations are building their buildings, not to last for hundreds of years, but just for a few decades. The craftsmanship has been lost. Frankly, a lot of the newer churches you see are just junk, both in construction and design. But nobody seems to care on those projects. I mean, literally, nobody cares. Its all about getting the cheapest price.

                                                                                       stained glass

Has the spirit of building a church as a “gift for God” been lost?

Of course! It’s supposed to be His house! If you build a temple, isn't it supposed to be special or better than anything else you've ever built—at least quality wise? You’ll go to some little church in the prairie, in the plains, and its 100-years old, but the floor doesn’t creek because it was built so well. We just don’t think that way today. We don’t build churches that way. Like I said, its all about getting the cheapest price—even if it means using amusement part materials and construction methods.

Thankfully, our best customers—the ones who buy our altars—think of their church as something they expect their kids and grandkids to attend, to be married in. They aren’t thinking of a short-term project. They see the importance of the quality and understand what you and I have been discussing. But there’s just a culture among many U.S. Christians that the church should just be an auditorium, basically. And that’s regrettable.

Do you have something in what you do that you're most proud of—a piece or a job you’ve done?

Well, doing the Holy Father job (at the Panama Cathedral) was big. We didn’t get the job because Pope Francis thought we were the best. I’m sure he’s never heard of us. But it was cool working under the Vatican. We got to design and produce the furniture, in addition to the altar. We designed the Holy Father’s chair, for example. It’s interesting because they all have their personal specs—and the Vatican has their design requirements So, Francis’ chair couldn’t be too fancy and couldn’t have carvings. It couldn’t be purple or blue. It couldn’t be royal—since he’s not a king. You know the Holy Father; he wears his old black shoes. Now, the last pope—Benedict—his chair had lions on it, and it was gold gilded. Anyway, I enjoyed that job, refurbishing the Basilica of Santa María la Antigua.

                                                                                             Pope Francis

And then the most rewarding moments were seeing how people reacted to all of it. Central and South American Catholic culture can be a bit different than what we have in the United States. But to see people at the dedication, at the building, watching the Pope, and crying—wanting to touch what he had touched and wanting to soak up the oil that he had touched. Francis blessed the Mary shrine we created, and he walked up that open arm marble staircase and put a flower up there—in the hand of the statue of Mary. The way all of that affected the people was probably the most moving thing I’ve had the chance to witness in my career.

So, the Papal chair—does that remain in the cathedral, reserved for him?

No, they usually put it there for the dedication, and he sits in it that one time, and then they always end up either in the Chancery office or the cathedral. After that one use, it ends up in a glass display case. I’m sure he doesn’t care, and I suspect he doesn’t even notice the difference between that and any other chair. It’s just a chair to him.

As it relates to the altars, what’s the most popular material out of which they’re made?

Catholic churches that can afford it prefer marble, but most can’t afford it these days. Many of the post-Vatican II churches had a high altar and also an altar of sacrifice. But a lot of churches today just have an altar of sacrifice—but no high altar. So, these days, a lot of them will make their altar of sacrifice out of stone, because (after Vatican II) it was traditionally the belief that it was supposed to be made out of a “permanent material.” So, marble is popular, if they can afford it.

                                                                            high altar

It used to be that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox altars all had inside of the altar a relic associated with the saint for whom the church was named. Is that still the case?

Well, our customers all have relics in their altars. Our brand is more traditional. I’m not saying we’re better. Just that that’s our niche. But most of our customers use relics.

We just did an altar in Fredericksburg, and Father held a ceremony, during which they placed in the altar all the relics they wanted in there before we put the mensa on. The Dominican Sisters, up in Ann Arbor, did the same thing on a project that we did for them.

Do they place them in some kind of container before placing them in the altar?

As a general rule, they just lay them inside—which looks pretty unfinished, with the bricks all uneven. They just kind of place them in whatever spot in the altar they choose. With the Dominican Sisters, there were thirty sisters, and it seemed like they all wanted to put something in the altar.

The other option that’s sometimes done is to have a little door built into the backside of the altar. We did one in Chicago—an amazing church, really. Father wanted the relic in the altar, in a very ornate reliquary, but he wanted a sliding door so that it could be opened and closed. So, we crated a gothic panel that would slide to the side. So, that’s another option.

I don’t think we’ve ever made an altar without the relic compartment and the five traditional crosses on top of the altar. That’s just kind of standard.

Obviously, the bishop consecrates the altar once it is completed, but is there any role played by the priest in the design or approval of that altar before it is built?

Every one of these is different. For our typical clientele, the priest is very involved. And then the bishop is the one that consecrates the altar. But the parish priest is heavily involved in the design. He’ll usually hire an architect—someone he trusts—to design it, and he’ll give input, but follow their lead.

Occasionally, someone will think they can do better than “the experts” would do, and they end up with something that feels a bit hodgepodge, and it’s out of scale. It ends up looking pretty homemade. It can be quite embarrassing. It’s God’s house, after all! Then, again, you know, the Last Supper was held on a rickety old table, so, what's the difference?

Any unusual stories in relation to the building or selling of altars—anything that's happened over the years that would be worth sharing?

Well, you're probably familiar with this, but in the 1990s—when a number of churches were getting shut down in Chicago—there were some disconcerting stories. Confessionals, altars, high altars, were being sold and used in inappropriate ways. Church altars were being turned into back bars, and things like that. There was a Hard Rock Café in Vegas that had a marble altar as their maitre d stand. It was the first thing that you saw when you walked in. The diocese had to get ahold of them and get it out of there.


When the churches were being closed (during that period), half of the time they would leave the donor’s name on the item when they auctioned it off, because they didn’t really care where it was going. They didn't care about the little brass plaque on it, either. So, some confessional booths ended up in a bar. They had been turned into the phone booths—back before we all had cell phones. And they literally had the donors’ names on them. As a consequence, when they close a church today, everything has to come out first. There can’t be a single religious symbol left inside when it is sold.

In an East Coast parish, the Church got some terrible press. They were closing a church and it was being knocked down so that the land could be used for something else. A photographer came out and took some photos—and got a shot of the wrecking ball, just as it was about to hit the face of Jesus (on the apse wall, behind the altar). I mean, it was just like it couldn't get any worse, publicity wise, for the diocese. Now, even if you’re going to demo a church building, you have to remove all symbols from the church first and, if there are murals, those have to be whitewashed first. You have to cover them up before the demolition, so that no visible religious symbols are being destroyed in the process.

Are there aspects of altars that people might be surprised about?

The biggest thing is that some people probably just think it's a table—a way to organize the place, so the priest knows where to stand. And yet, the altar of sacrifice is the most important part of a Catholic church. It’s supposed to represent your God! But I don’t know how many people understand that. A number of kids these days sure don’t know that; and, sadly, they’re not being taught it either.

There is a lot that’s being lost as it relates to the meaning of the church, the architecture, the rites. For example, why is the baptismal font eight-sided? Often, people not only don’t know the answer to that question, but they don’t even ask the question. And yet, everything has a meaning. Everything means something. But today, most people under fifty—if they walk into a church—won’t notice those architectural symbols and, if they do notice one of them, they likely don’t know what it means. That’s tragic. And what’s it going to be like 100 years from now?


I recognize that, with any job, there are frustrations. But has the work you do influenced you spiritually in any way?

Yes, I would say that I'm a lot more religious now than I was when I was a younger man. That's for sure.

I'm sure there's a great number of people in our industry that aren't religious, but it's hard for me to imagine doing what I do and not becoming more religious considering I view hundreds of pictures of churches a day and have visited more churches than I can count—on five continents. I mean, every day it's 10, 12, 14-hours of designing, or looking over images, or talking about the liturgy with a priest we’re designing for: “No, Father, we’ll have a problem with processions here.” A priest asks, “Should we put a pedestal under the baptismal font at the entrance? Because it's very traditional.” “No,” I have to tell him, “because your church is too small. The caskets will run into it, or it will be in the way of the processional, or the brides will run into it.” So, you're having those kinds of conversations all day long, and from a hundred different angles. And you can’t help but be affected by that.

And, frankly, all of the design we do affects the way people worship. The altars are the anchor piece for making it a sacred space. And then, behind that, would be the windows. And following the windows would be the paint, the colors, the artistic side that makes it feel less secular. We call those “the big three.” If all of this isn’t done right—and in a lot of churches today, it isn’t—then it feels “secular,” it ends up looking secular; and when it looks and feels that way, it doesn’t inspire devotion.


My measuring stick for knowing whether or not I’ve succeeded in creating a sacred space is to watch people. When they walk in, do they lower their voice or not? Do they hush their kids who are prone to scream or yell? If you walk into St. Patrick’s in Manhattan, you talk to your family or friends in hushed tones. Its reverent. But you walk into some of these newer churches around the country, and they’re all like, “Where’s the coffee shop?” So, if people walk into one of the churches we’ve done, and if they lower their voice and speak in reverent tones, that’s when I know I’ve been a small part of creating something sacred. And how can you not personally feel more sacred yourself because of that?

Interview conducted, transcribed, edited, and condensed by Alonzo L. Gaskill.

7/13/2022 10:03:02 PM
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