Apparition Chapel has new back altar

Century-old altar purchased from shuttered church in New York

CHAMPION — What was old is new again.

While it looks as if it’s been there all along, the back altar in the Apparition Chapel was actually added to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in March. It’s about a century old and came from a church in New York.

Visitors to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion will notice a new back altar that was added to the
Apparition Chapel at the end of March. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

It’s a consignment purchase, according to Don Warden, chief operations officer at the shrine. A former shrine employee, Jeff Koss, happened across the altar through Fynder Keepers, a consignment company in Stilwell, Kan., about 18 months ago.

To Koss, it seemed as if the altar had been made for the shrine. Warden and Father of Mercy John Broussard, rector, agreed. Negotiations began to purchase the altar along with two pedestals that now hold angel statues. The total cost was $9,500.

During that process, Warden spoke with a local woodworker. He asked, “If I were going to get an altar like this, if you were to make an altar like this, what would it cost me?”

“I just wanted to be sure we were being wise with our spending,” he told The Compass.

The artisan told Warden that such work would be difficult to replicate today, but “we would probably start at $100,000 and go up from there.”

Right way, Warden thought, “OK, this is a good deal.”

The altar arrived in parts and shrine volunteers and staff spent nearly a year restoring, cleaning and polishing the wood. There was also a lot of painting, so the altar now matches the wood beams of the shrine.

The altar also has a somewhat unique feature in a carousel-like turnstile that holds the crucifix. This swivels to reveal another crucifix. The ornate decorations in the turnstile are the work of Sr. Caritas Marie Le Claire, a Manitowoc Franciscan sister, and her own sister, Yvonne Bongle.

“It was a little different than I was used to doing,” Sr. Caritas Marie told The Compass. “And I did not feel 100% comfortable, because I mainly did 3D artwork, (but) I thought I would give it a try. I brought the turntable to our convent because the lighting was better. Then I realized that I didn’t have all the tools I needed and I knew my sister did, so I asked her if I could complete it at her house.”

The two worked together, making a template for the intricate designs on the six panels in the turnstile and adding a few touches to enhance =what was already there. Sr. Caritas Marie also added some gold to the tips of the spires.

“Before we started, we would pray together because I realized there were always problems that came up if we forgot to pray,” said Sr. Caritas Marie. “We both wanted to do this for the honor and glory of God and not for ourselves.”

When everything was ready, it took three weeks to fully assemble the altar, along with some work on the stairs in the sanctuary.

“The main spire in the middle was quite a process,” Warden said, adding that they rented a hoist from the local hardware store to move the spire in place.

“It took four of us to lift that main spire up on top of the main altar,” he said. “We literally had about half an inch of clearance from the top to the lights that are around it. Talk about a perfect fit.”

An added feature to the new/old altar is space for an altar stone. The altar stone from the shrine’s 1942 high altar had been in a display case in the Apparition Oratory downstairs. So the staff was able to place that stone in the restored altar.

“Mary knew what she was doing when she followed up on these things,” Warden said about how things came together. “It’s not like we were looking for all these things. She puts something in front of you and you discern and react. … You trust in her and her son. As long as you do your part, you’ll know what you’re supposed to be doing and what you’re not supposed to be doing.