We celebrate mass this week with a gift from the Friends of the Mass: a new altar table created entirely from a single magnificent slab of cottonwood. A labor of love and handcrafted dedication, the altar features a distinctive mahogany “butterfly keys” on the surface, and a “live-edge” design that preserves the natural bark of the tree.
One of the many groups under the PSO (Parent Service Organization) umbrella is the Friends of the Mass. The group is a duo; two parents who were approached in the spring of 2015 by the PSO and staff to help out Upper El guide Tim Snow who had been handling the monthly masses. The mothers, Heather Kendall and Angela Fowler, were friends, and their daughters were studying for the sacrament of first communion together at the time. It was a good fit.
“One of our goals with Friend of the Mass is to make mass more beautiful and interesting, for the children in particular,” said Angela Fowler. “More community oriented and more friendly to people who aren’t of the Catholic faith. You have people who aren’t Catholic in the school, so we hope to make it interesting and open to all.”
“I was blown away by the All Saints’ Day mass,” added Heather. “Children drew those beautiful banners. The thought going into the masses now makes it more special.”
St. Catherine’s recently received a gift of priestly vestments, acquired new mass candlesticks, and hopes to purchase liturgical vessels. One of the most significant additions to the masses at SCM, however, will be the new altar. Blessed by Fr. Tom Smithson, pastor of Corpus Christi, and used for the first time at this week’s mass celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the altar is a magnificent slab of cottonwood, a hardwood native to Texas.
The altar has been over a year in the making, a labor of love and handcrafted dedication. Previously, the school had used “a small plastic table from Costco,” said Heather. “My husband [Ben Mull] is handy so I thought it [making an altar] could work.”
“Of course,” she laughed, “this is when we thought it would take five hours not the hundred it turned out to be!”
The wood was purchased and milled at Pepper Creek Creations & Sawmill Services in San Saba, TX. Dennis Banks, a master woodworker and the mill’s proprietor, remembered the sale: “Heather and my wife are friends. We got a Texas cottonwood from Lampasas TX, North of Austin. The cottonwoods there are massive, beautiful. They mentioned that it might be kids taking this apart so we picked a wood that was light. It’s soft, but the end product wasn’t going to be taking abuse so it worked.”
Key features of the altar include that portability. It’s a single slab that rests upon a base of two legs supported by a trellis. Four dowel joints connect the slab to the base, fitting tightly without nails or screws needed. The table top has some remarkable design features: the sides are “live-edge,” meaning the natural bark of the tree is visible, preserved and integrated into the design without being cut away and discarded.
The top also features distinctive butterfly inlay keys: wedge-shaped wings of wood that are oriented across the grain, locking a split in the wood into place. The surface of the wood had a crack, and rather than cutting, sanding, gluing or otherwise erasing this feature, the table was designed to highlight it.
The altar came to life in the Kendall-Mull garage as parent Ben Mull designed, cut, sanded, chiseled, polished and shellacked it in frequently consultation with Dennis Banks of Pepper Creek Sawmill. “It was very nice having his support through this,” said Ben Mull, especially once the scope of the work became apparent. “The notches on the trellis took three hours per notch,” he recalled. “I wondered what I’d gotten myself into more than once. [The project] seemed to get bigger and bigger as we went on.” He persevered because, “I knew it was for the kids. So I was inspired to get it done so they could have it.”
“When Ben Galvan and Augustine Ponce [SCM facilities staff] came to pick it up, it felt like part of me leaving,” reminisced Heather Kendall, adding with a laugh, “but now we can park our car again.”
“Ben [Mull] did a beautiful job,” said Angela Fowler, noting the way the altar integrates the overall sensibility of the school. “St. Catherine’s is so nature-oriented, and now we have this piece of cottonwood…it adds just adds so much to the environment.”