Caring for Liturgical Linens

Earlier today I was laundering and ironing some liturgical linens over at Holy Rosary, and I posted this photo on Facebook:

Facebook: show-and-tell for adults.

Facebook: show-and-tell for adults.

Among the comments it received, a brother priest suggested that I explain how to launder liturgical linens. Since I am getting ready to conduct training on this in my two parishes, I will take him up on his suggestion. So here goes.

First we need to think about some general details. These linens are used for various purposes. The three basic types of linens that are most often laundered are:

  1. Corporal
  2. Purificator
  3. Lavabo Towel (also called a Finger Towel)

The corporal is the square-shaped linen that folds into nine squares and is placed on the center of the altar, underneath the chalice. Those who handle it properly know how to fold it in a certain way: it is never to be flung out in mid air (which I’ve seen happen more times than I care to recall), flipped over while open, or anything else other than carefully unfolded and refolded according to a specific pattern. The reason for this has to do with why the corporal is used in the first place – the word “corporal” comes from the Latin root corpus which means “body”. The Body of the Lord is placed on the corporal. And everything the priest does with the consecrated host should be over the corporal – so that, should any particles fall, they will be collected on it. This is why it is folded a certain way: so as to ensure that any particles contained therein do not fall out.

The purificator is a rectangular linen that is folded lengthwise in three and then folded in half. It is used to wipe the Precious Blood off the chalice. It is then used in the purification of the chalice and the other sacred vessels. Since it comes in contact with the Precious Blood, those who are using the purificator (the priest, deacon, and the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion) should be cautious and not touch the areas that are damp, lest the Precious Blood moisten their fingers and then be transferred to other surfaces where it should not be. This is why it is particularly important for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to handle the purificator carefully and with skill. They should be taught how to use it so that it doesn’t become a messy proposition. Priests also should be attentive and possibly use a new purificator during the purification of the vessels, if the ones that were used during communion have too much Precious Blood on them. I could go on. But the bottom line is: while the corporal comes in contact with the Precious Body of the Lord, the purificator comes in contact with his Precious Blood.

The lavabo or finger towel is used by the priest and/or other ministers to dry their fingers – either after the washing of the hands (by the priest) during the Offertory, or after distributing Holy Communion, when they dip their fingers in the ablution cup (small vessel full of water) so that any remaining particles of the host will be removed. Since the water in the ablution cup is made holy by contact with the Eucharistic particles (which then dissolve in it and cease to be the Eucharist), it is fitting that the lavabo towel should be laundered like the other sacred linens as well.

Having reviewed these general details concerning different types of linens, we now have to look at how they are laundered after they become “soiled” from use.

The first step is how they are handled immediately after use. Clearly, from what has been said above, they should be handled with care. Again, one must be careful not to unfold a corporal the wrong way, or pick it up carelessly so that it falls open; one must be careful to pick up the purificators in the areas where they are not soaked with the Precious Blood; etc. The sacristy is not a place for the distracted and the nonchalant. These are serious things that call for serious people.

The next step is to put them in some sort of container where they are held until they should be laundered. These containers differ from parish to parish and we need not concern ourselves too much with it here. Obviously one should not “dump” them in said container or “toss” them in; again, they should be placed there with reverence and care.

The third step is when the laundering process actually begins. Here we need to make an historical note. Up until roughly 1970 (I am not certain on the exact year, but I believe it would have coincided with the change to the vernacular Mass), the priest and only the priest had to do the initial rinsing of the sacred linens. Only after the priest had rinsed them, could someone else take them, launder them further, then press them.

In our time, it is permitted for others to do this initial rinsing. Whether this is a good idea or not, let everyone decide for himself. I personally am not convinced. In any case, here we need to talk about how this rinsing is done.

Ordinarily, the linens should be soaked for a while. This should be done in a container that is dedicated for the soaking and laundering of linens – i.e., it should not be done in your regular dish pan or mixing bowl. The linens should be placed in it and then covered in water. You may need to press them down with one hand to get the air out, so that they do not float; this hand should then be rinsed (over the container – its good to have a small pitcher of water handy to be able to pour over the hand that needs to be purified), since it has just come in contact with the first rinsing water,which absorbs particles of the host from the corporal(s) and any remaining Precious Blood. (Note: when the particles of the host are absorbed in the water they cease to be the Eucharist; when the Precious Blood dries, or any still-moist Precious Blood is dissolved in the water, it ceases to be the Eucharist.)

Wherever all of this soaking and rinsing is being done, care should be taken not to splash the water everywhere.

The ideal place for this rinsing to occur is in the sacristy of the church, in the sacrarium, if it is big enough to accommodate the linens. In that case, if the drain can be stopped, it will not be necessary to put a container in it to rinse the linens in. They can be placed directly in the sacrarium. The sacrarium, by the way, is the sink that drains directly into the ground. Most, but not all, churches have one. Every Catholic church should have one. Here is the one we have here at St. Barnabas:

The metal cover lifts up to reveal a shallow basin. Ours, unfortunately, is not large enough to be able to use for the soaking, so we do it in a separate container, then pour the water carefully down the sacrarium.

The metal cover lifts up to reveal a shallow basin. Ours, unfortunately, is not large enough to be able to use for the soaking, so we do it in a separate container, then pour the water carefully down the sacrarium.

If the soaking is done someplace else – for example, at the sacristan’s house – then care should be taken to use a container that has high enough sides so that it can be moved without the water’s splashing out. And the water from the soaking should be poured into the ground, in an area where no one will walk (for example, a flower bed, or in the woods behind the house).

It is good to soak the linens overnight – or at least for a few hours. After properly disposing of the soak water from the first soaking, I usually rinse them a few more times (again, pouring the water in the sacrarium or outside in the ground).

The water from the soaking should never, ever be poured into a sink that drains into a septic tank or a sewer system.

After the linens have been thoroughly and reverently rinsed, then it is possible to launder them as one would launder any normal fabrics. It may be necessary to pre-treat stains (particularly since there is often lipstick on the purificators). Shout-brand pretreater is good for this purpose. In any case, I have found that as long as they were soaked for a good long time, it is sufficient to wash them with a couple teaspoons of bleach and some Oxi-Clean in addition to the regular detergent.

If your washer has a “second rinse” setting, it is advisable to use it, to be sure that all of the soap is rinsed out. If you do not rinse out all the soap, the linens will yellow and possibly also be a bit stiffer when you iron them. Sometimes I just run them through another wash cycle without adding any more soap, so that they are more thoroughly rinsed out. It depends upon the washing machine also.

Again, soiled liturgical linens should never be placed directly into a washing machine without first going through the initial rinsing procedures mentioned above.

If you will not have time to iron the linens right away after you launder them, the best thing to do is put them damp, out of the washer, into a ziploc bag and freeze them. They will thaw quickly when you are ready to iron them.

Generally speaking, I do not put them in the dryer, because this can cause them to become misshapen. Also, if the linens are made of pure linen, it is easier to press them when they are damp. People have different tips and tricks with how to iron linens, but I prefer to do so when they are still damp. Sometimes they are still a little damp (particularly around the hemmed edges) after ironing, but I leave them in the open air for a while so that they can finish air-drying before I put them away in the sacristy.

As for whether to use starch, it should only be used on the corporal, and apart from just mentioning it, I will not try to explain how to starch corporals here. I am told that it is best to use a cellulose-based starch instead of traditional cornstarch – something to do with the longevity of the linens when one is used over the other. Down through the centuries, nuns have of course invented fancy things you can do with starch and corporals: see here for more on that.

Of course, all this ironing should be done on an ironing board that is immaculately clean, with an iron that is in good working condition and not caked up with starch and mineral deposits. If the iron or the ironing board are dirty, the linens will get brown or yellow stains, end up being stiffer than they should be, and other problems may arise. None of this is befitting the sacred linens used in the service of Our Lord. Ideally one would have an iron and an ironing board that are just used for sacristy items.

A final note concerning the material that linens are made from: it is not always linen. If you are ever in a position to buy linens, you should never get any that contain synthetic fibers, which may impede or lessen the absorption capabilities of the particular item. The traditional thing is to have linens that are made of 100% linen; nowadays there are also many that are a linen-cotton blend, and so easier to care for, pure linen being much more difficult to iron. Of course, in many places “back in the day” they had mangles and other fancy equipment that made pressing linens easier; nowadays most of us are using our household irons and the results vary.

Click to see on Amazon

Click to see on Amazon

So there you have it – my sort of brief explanation of how to care for liturgical linens. Those who need more information, such as how to fold a corporal properly, how to identify which linen is which (for example, sometimes it is easy to confuse lavabo towels and purificators), and more, might pick up a copy of this inexpensive booklet: Handbook for Laundering Liturgical Linens.

And I’m sure there is much more that could be said. This is what comes to mind off-hand, in response to my priest-friend’s suggestion to talk about it. Some of you who are experienced sacristans might have some observations or suggestions to add. Some of you may have questions. Feel free to comment!

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7 Responses to Caring for Liturgical Linens

  1. iPadre says:

    Great post Father!

  2. sue ferenze says:

    Father,

    This was such an enlightening article. I had no idea so much was involved with the linens. Thank you for once again showing some of the intricacies of the church.

    Sue

  3. Analda Anglin says:

    Father, are there any additional steps for laundering a soiled pall cover (provided it is removable from the pall itself)?

    Also, do you know why sacrariums typically have lids or covers? Is it to prevent people from using them for other purposes? It is to facilitate soaking?

    • Remove the pall cover and follow the instructions as for other linens. I believe they have lids to keep things that shouldn’t be in there out; also, I suppose, to keep things from outside from coming in (I suppose bugs could come in, since it drains into the ground) — also, to keep people from using it for the wrong purposes.

  4. Janne Elaine says:

    So interesting and thorough. Thanks!

  5. Marge Smathers says:

    After reading this post I now have much more respect for those people in the parish who take on this task.

  6. Carla Cottrell says:

    I always enjoy learning different things about my faith. It will take my life time.

Comments are closed.