After 30 years, pope's altar to be used at beatification of Father Solanus Casey

The altar that more than 90,000 Catholics worshiped around when Pope John Paul II said mass in 1987 at the Pontiac Silverdome will be back in the spotlight Saturday.

The mammoth wooden altar and matching ambo, or pulpit, were hauled by tractor-trailer this week from Ann Arbor to metro Detroit ahead of this weekend's beatification of Father Solanus Casey. 

Casey, a Capuchin friar, spent 20 years as the porter, or doorkeeper, of St. Bonaventure in Detroit. He is the second American-born male to be beatified by the Catholic Church, the final step before sainthood.

The altar pieces had been kept for years in a warehouse at the Domino's Farms office park. Catholic philanthropist and businessman Tom Monaghan, who owns Domino's Farms, underwrote the cost of creating the furnishings for the Silverdome mass and was able to keep the pieces afterward.

When organizers of the beatification asked to borrow the altar and ambo, Monaghan happily obliged. "I'm thrilled that one of our own is getting beatified," he told the Free Press this week.

Saturday's beatification will be a historic event.

"It will be the largest Catholic mass in the City of Detroit ever," said Gerarda Tobin, who was appointed by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron to lead event planning for the beatification ceremony.  

Tobin said that 389 priests and deacons have signed up to fan out through the stadium to distribute communion. Organizers have ordered enough hosts for 70,000 people. 

The altar is 12 feet long and made of layered cherry wood. It has simple lines and a wide base to make it look like it is growing out of the ground, like a tree, said Anthony Gholz, a former partner at renowned architecture firm Gunnar Birkerts & Associates in Birmingham. The firm designed it and several other matching pieces for the '87 mass, including the ambo, candle holders and papal chair. 

"The furniture is oversized because it was meant to be seen from 100 yards away in an 80,000-seat stadium," Gholz said.

He said a roughly 1-inch sheet of steel was hidden within the altar and ambo, making them heavy. The altar was lifted into place at the Silverdome by crane.  

"They were made so that if there were any kind of a security breach or security problem, the pope could get behind the altar and lay down," Gholz said.

At the Silverdome, the pieces were placed on a large, round platform designed to represent Michigan. The platform had live greenery and a stream of running water, intended to give it an earthy feel.

The Rev. Mark Joseph Costello, a Capuchin priest from Montana who is helping plan Saturday's beatification, said he was overjoyed when he learned some of the items from the papal mass were available. Not only do the pieces have a rich history, he said, but their plain design reflects the Capuchins' simple lifestyle.

"The Capuchins, traditionally, we use wood and simpler things," he said, as opposed to more expensive materials like marble. "This furniture has a simplicity about it, even though it's beautifully designed. It felt right at home using these pieces."  

Years after the 1987 mass, Monaghan donated the candle holders and the processional cross from it to the Archdiocese for use at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit. 

The papal chair is now at Ave Maria University, the Catholic university in Florida that Monaghan founded.

And the altar and ambo went to Ann Arbor.

For about eight to 10 years, the altar was used during monthly masses in a room at Domino's Farms, Monaghan said. Then, it went into storage.  

Over the last month, staff at Domino's Farms repaired some scuffs in the altar, and cleaned both the altar and ambo. 

On Wednesday, a crew from George P. Johnson Experience Marketing loaded the altar and ambo onto a tractor-trailer and drove them to a secure area of the company's facility in Auburn Hills.

They will be put in place Saturday morning in Ford Field.  

Contact Ann Zaniewski: 313-222-6594 or azaniewski@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter: @AnnZaniewski. Patricia Montemurri contributed to this report.  

HOW TO WATCH 

Tickets are no longer available for the beatification mass of Father Solanus Casey at 4 p.m. Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit. 

But if you can't be there in person, here is how you can watch it online or on TV: 

LIVE-STREAM: The beatification mass, which starts at 4 p.m. Saturday, will be live-streamed online at The Michigan Catholic (www.themichigancatholic.org/), the Archdiocese of Detroit (www.aod.org/), the CatholicTV Network (www.catholictv.org/watch-live) or the Catholic Television Network of Detroit (http://www.aod.org/our-archdiocese/catholic-media/ctnd-tv/).

ON TV: The mass will also be on television on the Catholic Television Network of Detroit and may be on local TV stations. It will be rebroadcast on the Catholic Television Network of Detroit at 8 p.m. Nov. 21 and 12:30 p.m. Nov. 22. 

CONNECT: Some local Catholic churches, schools, and groups are planning to host watch events. Contact your local Catholic center for information on specific locations and times.

Sources: Archdiocese of Detroit, The Michigan Catholic, Catholic Television Network of Detroit, CatholicTV Network

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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