For nearly a year, parishioners at Our Lady of the Snows Parish in Snowflake, AZ, have been treated to a gradual artistic transformation of the inside of the church.
Fr. Nathanael Block, the parish’s pastor, calls the process “perfectly providential”. Throughout the process, artist friends of parishioners expressed a willingness to help with the project at minimal cost.
The high point is the new altar, made by Fr. Joseph Terra, FSSP, a self-taught carpenter and friend of a father of a Snowflake parishioner.
“It was a pure donation on his part – he just wanted to beautify the church,” Fr. Block said. “[It was] not something we could have afforded on our own.”
Fr. Terra modeled his design on a 17th century Venetian altar created by Italian architect Baldassare Longhena.
“One of the treasures I have is an architectural history book I inherited from my great uncle, and in it were some pictures of the church of San Francesco della Vigna in Venice,” said Fr. Terra, explaining that the book sent him down a rabbit hole of research and study. “So I’ve never visited Venice, but I’ve done versions of the stuff that they did, by long distance. Taking a picture, drawing it out – and it took a lot of re-drawing to really study and understand the style. I spent a lot of time at the drawing board!”
Fr. Terra is a priest of the Fraternity of St. Peter, a clerical society which celebrates the traditional Mass and sacraments in the extraordinary form. Many of his parish assignments have given him an opportunity to hone his carpentry skills, which he views as part of his vocation to serve God.
“I think the artists of the past, there’s basically two approaches you can take to art: you can do it for the glory of God, or you can do it for the glory of yourself. If it’s for the glory of God, then that changes things dramatically. You must do the best – it must be beautiful, and in my case, all I’m doing is going back to these great accomplishments of the past, and using them. They did all the hard work, and designing all that stuff is indeed hard work. I took the easy part.”
For the altar in Snowflake, Fr. Terra used a combination of plywood, fiberboard, poplar, and Douglas fir. Using a lathe, he shaped three sets of Tuscan, Ionic, and Corinthian pillars. A red cross in the center depicts the sacrificed Lamb of God, with four points represent the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
A casual viewer may be surprised that the altar is wooden. One professional artist – yet another friend of a parishioner – volunteered to paint the altar to look like marble.
The entire altar is moveable, for use in both ad orientem and versus populum masses – facing the people, or facing the Tabernacle.
And like all Catholic altars, it has relics – but here, there’s a bit of a mystery.
“We took our altar stone from the old altar and reused it. The unfortunate part is, we don’t know whose the relic is. We can’t find out in the archives, it’s not marked, there’s nothing in our files,” said Fr. Block.
And one of the relics he could find a record for mentions a name he can’t find in any catalogue of saints – a “Blessed John Salvo”.
“I don’t know who it is. I can’t find anything on him anywhere I’ve looked.”
The other two are a first-class relic of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and a second-class relic of St. Benedict of Nursia. First class relics are parts of the bodies of saints – usually bone fragments – and second class relics are items the saint would have worn or possessed. The relic in the Snowflake altar is a piece of St. Benedict’s clothing.
The next step of the artistic transformation of the parish will be a repainted ceiling depicting the Trinity.
“We’re going to have the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – the Holy Spirit above the altar, Christ the King above the nave, and then God the Father by the door,” said Fr. Block. “This artist, he’s a portrait artist. The Holy Spirit will be a copy of something he already has, and the other two are going to be brand new for us.”
And finally, Fr. Block hopes to install a new altar rail.
The entire process will cost the parish very little, as the artists either donated their talents or used inexpensive materials. But the effect on the parish, and on those who worship there, will be priceless.
“It’s something that anyone and everyone can avail of – the poor, the rich, doesn’t make any difference. They can come into the church and see this beauty and they can be enriched by it,” said Fr. Terra. “They can be moved to reverence to God and to pray to Him and seek His intercession. You’re talking about something which is not just a matter of simple beauty, it’s a matter of faith. That’s what the beauty of God’s house really comes down to.”