Local Craftsmen Building Altar, Ambo, Chair for Papal Mass


In two workshops 26 miles apart in Westchester County, small teams of unlikely craftsmen are creating the altar, ambo and presider’s chair Pope Francis will use when he celebrates Mass at Madison Square Garden Sept. 25.

In Port Chester, Salesian Brother Salvatore “Sal” Sammarco, a veteran high school carpentry instructor, leads three immigrant day laborers who are building the simple oak chair in a borrowed two-car garage.

The men are drawn from the ranks of two groups that champion fair wages, worker safety and skills training. Don Bosco Workers Inc. Mission in Port Chester and Obreros Unidos Mission in Yonkers are associated with archdiocesan Catholic Charities.

At the same time, William Kelly, another master craftsman and wood-shop teacher, guides three teenagers at Lincoln Hall Boys’ Haven in Lincolndale. They are making the oak altar and matching ambo. Lincoln Hall is a Catholic Charities-affiliated educational center that provides residential and community services for boys and their families. Youth are assigned to the program by family courts throughout New York state.

Cardinal Dolan visited both sites Aug. 6.

“Obviously Madison Square Garden isn’t a church,” the cardinal said at Port Chester. Instead of buying furnishings or having them professionally made, Cardinal Dolan said he and others planning the Mass wanted to have them made by “people who are particularly close to the heart of Pope Francis.”

Specifically, they wanted to involve immigrants and troubled young people “who have beautiful skills and will use them for the glory of God and in the service of other people,” Cardinal Dolan said.

Brother Sal said his group worked from designs provided by the organizers and that are consistent with the pope’s desire to keep liturgical furnishings “humble, pure and poor.”

He said there will be no carvings or symbols on the chair, and that it will be covered with white canvas. “It’s not plush. It’s like eating at the kitchen table, not in the dining room,” Brother Sal told Catholic News Service.

Work on the chair will take about two weeks from start to finish. The elliptical curve at the top is the most challenging element, Brother Sal said.

The day laborers working on the chair are from Mexico, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

Gonzalo Cruz, director of Don Bosco Workers, told CNS the project is “significant for us as Catholics.”

“We represent justice for the workers and we’re happy to be a part of this,” he added.

During Cardinal Dolan’s visit to the garage workshop, he got a preview of the altar linens that will be used at the Mass. Two women from Obreros Unidos showed him linens they are embroidering with heart and dove designs to represent the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Ann Heekin, president of Don Bosco Workers, said the workers pray the Rosary each day at quitting time.

The project site is owned by the Communications Workers of America, Local 1103, which also provides meeting space for the day laborers’ organization to conduct safety training and other programs throughout the year.

Kevin Sheil, president of Local 1103, admitted he thought it was a joke when he heard his day laborer colleagues would be building the papal chair at the local’s garage. Now the union is providing space, tools, water and meals, as needed. “We’re unbelievably honored to be associated with this project,” he said.

At Lincoln Hall, the altar and ambo are being made in a brightly lit vocational building on the sprawling 454-acre campus. Wood-shop teacher Kelly said he chose the best students from last year’s daily classes to build the furnishings. He has been rewarded with a new level of persistence and engagement.

“They really wanted to be on this project. There’s already a change in their attitude and behavior. There’s no hand play or fighting, no problems now,” he said. “The trick is to get them interested in doing a project and then you can teach other things,