Portable Altars

When I was in the parish, a dear parishioner (RIP) built a portable altar for me. It was a lot better to celebrate Mass on it than on, say, the back of a low-profile upright piano (in one nursing home), or a table that might have also been used for card games and scrapbooking (in another nursing home). And, the nobler reasons notwithstanding, it was a great conversation piece: the nursing home residents loved to watch me set it up! Most of them having been trained in the “old school”, it just made sense to them that there should be a separate and specially-designated piece of furniture for Mass, and they were quite edified by it.

Here are two photos:

Here it is, folded up and ready to carry. The legs were attached with locking hinges, but the lower half of the leg detached (it unscrewed from the upper part) and then those four pieces could be stored inside.

All set up, and you can see the old translation of the Roman Missal on there!

Well, as far as I know this was the only portable altar of its type in the world. Not that portable altars are unheard-of; in fact, they used to be fairly common. However, I never knew of a place that still produced them, much less in the particular design that the parishioner and I developed!

Today, then, I was excited to get an email from a friend with a link to the web site of a man who does produce portable altars in a more traditional style. Click here to see that site. (Since I am effectively giving him a free advertisement, I’m sure he won’t mind if I borrow some of the photos from his site.)

As you can see, it is designed to be set up on top of an existing table. This makes good sense, since the height of a normal household table is lower than that of a normal altar; celebrating directly on a regular table is both uncomfortable and more difficult.

Shown not properly set up, but rather in such a way that demonstrates all the “accessories” that you can store inside it: a chasuble, stole, burse (the square item with a cross on it), altar cards, missal, etc.

Here is how it looks when it is folded up for carrying:

Locked and loaded. I’m sure it’s not light, but as you can see it is of very fine quality.

Drawers and compartments reveal spaces to store all of the items needed to celebrate Mass properly. The drawers also serve as a support for the leaves that open up to extend the width of the top surface.

Note that it contains a black chasuble, used for celebrating Masses for the dead. In any case, I used to bring a white chasuble with me, since white is a universal color that can always be used.

And here is how it might look, all set up with linens and so forth for Mass:

Set up to celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form, complete with altar cards and the Missal starting out on the right-hand side of the altar.

In the first picture above you see that there is also a piece of white marble inset into the top: this is an “altar stone” and would have a relic of a saint embedded within it. These used to be obligatory for altars. They can still be used today, but for new altars the saints’ relics are no longer embedded directly in the stone, but rather underneath them in a compartment. The stone just serves to close up the compartment. (However, having relics in an altar is optional today.) Here is a picture of the altar stone at Pope John Paul II Catholic High School, made of the same type of red marble (“rosso laguna”) that the heart on the school’s Sacred Heart statue is made of:

This photo was taken with an old iPod, so it’s not very good, but you get the idea.

If a priest wanted to have a portable altar made with an antique altar stone that has a relic in it, usually in most dioceses some of these stones are available (in the Chancery’s storage or even in individual parishes), from old altars that were removed or modified.

I have no idea how much the gentleman that makes these portable altars charges – I would imagine that they are “not inexpensive” – but it looks like a wonderful investment and a great service that he offers. While it is permitted to celebrate on ordinary tables and the like in particular circumstances, such as when saying Mass in a rest home, yet it is even better when the celebration can take place on a properly designated and blessed piece of furniture. Thus the tradition of having portable altars like these is laudably retained, and I hope that there will be more people in the future who will manufacture them!

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