Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Commissioning a Portable Altar Appropriate for the TLM

My friend Fr Andrew Marlborough, a priest of the diocese of Plymouth, in England, (whom our readers may remember from his writings about the recovery of liturgical artifacts from auction houses) recently contacted me about a portable altar he had made for personal use.

I asked him to describe the process and how consideration of the different requirements that went into the design of altar. The carpenter who built the altar is Dutch, his name is Daan Lockefeer: www.lockefeermeubelmaker.nl.

Fr Andrew wrote: When asked to help at a university chaplaincy, I was shocked to learn that there was no proper altar or liturgical space to use. This was especially sad because the university had once been a thriving convent school with a beautiful chapel, now converted into a lecture theatre.

The experience made me determined to find a fitting solution for offering Holy Mass in temporary spaces. This was amplified by a desire to help priests who celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass in places with no permanent altar. So, I set out to source a portable altar for such situations.

At first, I looked at second-hand small chapel altars but most of these were still too big to be easily moveable. Then I also considered buying an old military chaplain’s altar, or one of the beautifully-crafted St Joseph’s Workshop portable altars. But these seemed really for more occasional backcountry or field use and are just too small for normal circumstances.

I soon realised that what I really needed was a transportable altar that was still a traditional size but which could fold up to be transported in the back of a car. And this type of altar seemed not to be available. So, I decided to commission a prototype from a cabinet-maker. I consider this to be a first attempt which can be improved upon in later designs and I hope it might stimulate further discussion and similar commissions.
The first thing was to establish the size needed. This is really important for good ars celebrandi and sadly many modern altars are made without proper reference to the accumulated practical wisdom of tradition. Reflection on this, and discussion with a traditional priest-friend, made me realise that the ideal size was 100cm high x 150cm long x 60cm deep.

Another major step was the realisation of the essential difference in design of this altar from the ‘all-in-one’ military-inspired portable field altars. Sacred vessels, Crucifix, candlesticks, sacred art, and other elements can easily be transported separately. What was essential here was a basic structure of the correct size which could be dressed with altar linens and which could accommodate an altar stone.

There were several design challenges to address. The first was the configuration of the folding mensa. After initially considering a centrefold, we realised that the central section on which the corporal, and so the Sacred Body & Blood of Our Lord, would rest, should be of one piece. Given the ideal overall length of 150cm, it was decided that this central section should be 75cm, with folding end panels of 37.5cm each, secured by extra-strong hinges. The second design question was how to construct the legs. It was decided here that single-piece removable legs, strengthened by removable stretchers, would be better and stronger than folding legs. The third challenge was how to incorporate an altar stone into the design. The need for a thin mensa to keep weight down meant that recessing an altar stone permanently into the wood surface wasn’t possible. After considering several options, the best solution seemed to be a simple shallow pull-out drawer located directly under the mensa centre which can accommodate an altar stone that is removed in transit.

Finally, it was decided that the best material to use would be oak. The overall result is a strong, relatively light, basic altar structure of the correct dimensions, which can be easily transported in an average car. The cost before shipping was 1200 Euros.

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