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The Altar Guild

This month’s article introduces a variation on the regular theme of this column. Instead of describing current members of the St. John’s family, we will occasionally focus on topics of historical interest. We welcome suggestions for such topics, and encourage those with personal experience or research expertise to contribute. Tradition is one of the most important components of the life of any church or community. We hope to nurture that tradition through renewed awareness of the history of our church and community. We hope also to acknowledge the work of those who have done so much for so many years.

Three such individuals contributed to this article. Jackie Perry, Lillian Major and Winston Sheffield have all served or currently serve as chair of the Altar Guild. All three emphasize the importance of those who preceded them and with whom they worked. For example, Jackie described the pivotal role played by Cary Muller, wife of Albert C. Muller, the church’s priest from 1938-42, and Mrs. James McClellan (known as Mrs. Mac), in establishing the Altar Guild in the 1940s. Cary wrote the first instructional manual for the Guild, based upon one written by Constance Ribble for the Diocese. That manual contained guidelines and directions for preparing for Holy Eucharist, Morning Prayer and other services, and specified the proper vestments and linens (including how to make them).

In the late 1940s Virginia Causey took over as chair of the Altar Guild. She wrote the manual currently being used, with subsequent updates to adapt to changing times. Jackie remembers her as an outstanding teacher and organizer who formalized the structure of the Guild and its activities. Virginia brought Jackie into the Guild. At that time the priest and Altar Guild chair called on prospective candidates at home to ask if they were interested in being trained for the Guild. Once accepted, the new member worked for a year or so as an apprentice to a Guild member before being fully appointed. Jackie became Virginia’s apprentice. The women worked in pairs, always wore a headdress during their work, and went to the altar for prayer before beginning work.

In the early 1960s Virginia stepped down as chair of the Altar Guild when she became president of the Women of St. John’s. Jackie followed her as Altar Guild chair. Through the years Betty Green, Lillian Major, Cathy Price, Cary Brabrand and Charlotte Trible also served in the position. The current chair, Winston Sheffield, has served since 1992.

The work of Altar Guild is essential to the sacred celebrations of the church. Members of the guild made or selected the paraments that hang from the altar, the pulpit and the lectern. Because the seasons of the church year are represented by white, purple, green and red, each must be expressed in an appropriately colored set of paraments. Their history testifies to the care and dedication that went into making or selecting them. The first sets, for an earlier altar, were made by Cecil Borum, Etta Buch and Virginia Causey. A white silk faille set for that altar came from C. M. Almy & Son, Inc., in New York, and was given by Mrs. Elis Olsson.

When a new altar was installed in 1965, new paraments had to be created to fit it. The original red set was altered by inserting panels of red velvet. This work was done by Culbertson, a church outfitter in Philadelphia, and possibly (according to Jackie’s recollection) by Virginia Causey. The original white, green and purple sets were given to the Diocese of Virginia, and replacements for them were purchased from Culbertson. Each of these three sets is made of silk brocade, and each has a distinct ecclesiastical pattern. The new all-seasonal set was created from the Verona tapestry dossal which had hung below the memorial window depicting St. John. This work was done by Culbertson together with Page Camp, Trudy Bland and Jackie Perry. Jackie remembers making three trips to Philadelphia to deliver and select textiles, and assure that they were being cut and sewn to fit the altar correctly. Even after the new paraments were introduced, they sometimes had to be altered slightly so that they would continue to hang straight. In addition, Jackie and Trudy made new altar linens. Virginia Causey made the off-white funeral pall which covers the casket at funerals.

The bulk of the Altar Guild’s work consists of preparing the sanctuary for services, not just those on Sunday, but also Christmas and Lenten services, and other special services such as weddings, baptisms, funerals and community events. This entails attending to flowers, paraments, bread and wine, candles and all altar objects. Lillian tells how each priest had a particular preference for how the altar should be arranged, where the sacraments should be placed, and how the sanctuary should look. This didn’t always correspond with the preferences of Altar Guild members. Although the priest is the final authority in such matters, a spirit of collaboration and compromise generally reigns.

The Altar Guild is also responsible for washing and mending the linens and regularly cleaning and polishing the metal objects used in services. In the past, they sometimes had to iron priest’s vestments. These were often pure linen and required extensive ironing. Jackie recalls that guild members occasionally even cleaned the light fixtures in the sanctuary. Lillian recalls that, during her time as chair, there were six teams of three. Responsibility for a specific set of linens was assigned to a particular team. Metal cleaning duties were passed around among the teams. Since brass cleaning was especially hard work everyone who was available showed up at the time arranged for that job.

The Altar Guild created and preserves many of the traditions that enrich our worship at St. John’s. On Sunday morning as you look around the sanctuary, and especially at the beautiful objects on and around the altar, think with gratitude of those individuals past and present who produced and maintained them.