Fr. Michael McGourty, pastor of Toronto’s St. Peter’s parish, shows where the altar stone he found would have been placed to celebrate Mass before the Second Vatican Council changed the rules. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Long forgotten altar stone a relic of Church’s past

  • February 28, 2016

TORONTO - Finding a portable altar stone containing first class relics among the forgotten items in the basement of the Paulist Centre for Catholic Evangelization caught Fr. Michael McGourty by surprise.

“Surprised and a little bit shocked that it was just put in a drawer,” said McGourty, pastor of St. Peter’s parish, which houses the Paulist Centre.

The discovery happened while McGourty combed through drawers containing mostly “junk” in the basement chapel at the Paulist Centre, which the Archdiocese of Toronto took over from the Paulist Fathers last June. The archdiocese plans to convert the centre into a convent.

“We were going through the old chapel and we found it in the old sacristy,” said McGourty.

McGourty suspects the stone was used by the Paulists in their chapel, located in the basement of the centre, and possibly when celebrating Mass off site.

“These altar stones used to be taken by the priest into the school or into wherever.”

What made finding an altar stone stashed away in a dusty drawer particularly surprising for McGourty is that each consecrated piece of marble holds first class relics, typically bones, of at least two saints.

“To have a relic of a certain saint is a great treasure,” he said. “It should not be in a drawer.”

According to a handwritten note signed by Archbishop Neil McNeil and dated March 26, 1924, the relics inside the stone are from St. Victoria, St. Innocent and St. Prosper. McGourty suspects the parish’s early Paulist priests, who arrived at St. Peter’s in 1912, had a particular devotion to these saints.

Although the use of portable or removable altar stones was nixed following the Second Vatican Council — “now the idea is that only altars … set aside for permanent celebration of the Eucharist should have relics within them,” said McGourty — they were once common at Mass.

“When celebrating Mass they would put the altar stone into the altar,” said McGourty. “Often there would be a hole in the altar for the altar stone to go into. It was the idea of associating the sacrifice of that saint with the sacrifice of Christ.”

This notion comes from the early Christians who for about 1,000 years celebrated Mass atop the tombs of saints. As the Church expanded, missionaries began erecting altars in otherwise uncharted regions of the world far away from the graves of any Vatican- recognized saints. Thus, the altar stone was born.

“At a certain point the growth of the Church couldn’t keep up with the number of saints so they started to take portions of the saint’s bodies,” said McGourty. “You might have 1,000 churches in the world that want a piece of St. Francis of Assisi. So no longer were entire bodies or major parts of the body being placed under the altar but they would be placed in … altar stones.”

But with altar stones no longer being used many have been forgotten despite once being a significant part of a parish.

“The altar stone is a significant part of what used to be the Rite for the Dedication of a Church,” said McGourty, who wrote his doctorate on the liturgy of the dedication of a church.

That link to the past is why the archdiocese has archived a few of the stones.

“We store and preserve a small sample of altar stones for posterity, as evidence of Catholic ritual practice in a certain place and time,” said Gillian Hearns, manager of the Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto. “However, altar stones are different than most of the material we keep in the archives because they contain relics. Relics are meant to be venerated rather than stored indefinitely.”

That reality prompted archive staff to thin out its collection, shrinking it in recent years from more than 50 stones to seven, including the one recently found at the Paulist Centre. But McGourty doesn’t want it to stay there.

“The proper place for it is more likely a church and not a drawer,” he said. “My hope is that if someone is actually building a church it would be given to them.”

Being in near mint condition, the 92-year-old stone found by McGourty could be reused although it would more likely end up in a convent, priests’ quarters or retreat centre than a newly built church.

Not every altar stone collected by the archdiocese has been found in such good shape.

“Some of the stones are damaged, the seal on the relic is loose or the stone is missing the testimonial document that identifies the relic,” said Hearns. “This makes them inappropriate for reuse ... (but) it is challenging to respectfully dispose of these altar stones.”

The proper disposal is to bury it in consecrated ground since it contains human remains, she said. Though altar stones are not used during Mass today, the connection between Heaven and Earth they symbolize is still relevant, said McGourty. That’s why they need to be preserved.

“The altar stone represents an expression of our belief that the Church on Earth is in communion with the Church in Heaven whenever we offer the sacrifice of the Eucharist,” he said. “It contains the relics of saints and symbolizes our communion in Heaven.”

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