It was a full house in 2018 for Palm Sunday at St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Mississauga, Ont. Photo courtesy St. Maximilian Kolbe

Holy Week takes months of preparation

By 
  • April 10, 2019

St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica is bursting at the seams during Holy Week.

Like all churches, the Archdiocese of Toronto’s cathedral attracts its biggest crowds during this time of the year and head sacristan Ricardo Aleixo said it is important that everyone put their best foot forward.

“For Holy Week, and especially during the Easter Triduum, the church is fully decorated because it’s a symbol of joy and festivity,” said Aleixo. “The church is all decked out in its best, the best that we can put forward because Catholics always like to put the best that they can afford out for the glory of God.”

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of the most important week in the Catholic Church’s liturgical year. It commemorates the last week of Jesus’ life and the events that led to His arrest, crucifixion and resurrection.

From Holy Monday to Easter Sunday, parishes have a jampacked schedule of special Masses and observances. Behind the scenes, sacristans, parish staff and volunteers are working to set the stage.

“To someone who doesn’t know what a sacristan is, the best way I can put it in laymen’s terms is think of it as an over-glorified butler, except you serve at the Lord’s table,” said Aleixo.

Aleixo, who has been head sacristan for four years, begins his preparations for Holy Week in mid-January. He keeps a notebook of checklists, order forms, important dates and contacts that he and his team of four sacristans go through to make sure all the supplies will be ready.

“Because there’s so many details, I just start checking things off my list,” said Aleixo. “Palms are ordered, lilies are ordered, candles are ordered and I plan out what I need for the week. So everything is kind of mapped out for when I need it, what I need it for and when I’m expecting delivery of it.”

Timing is everything, especially with perishable supplies like the palms for Palm Sunday. John Czuchta, general manager at DiCarlo Religious Supplies, said they have been working with clients since Advent.

Many parishes start to order their ashes, palms, extra hosts, incense, custom Paschal candles and all other religious wares by the beginning of the new year. Deliveries typically begin about a month before Palm Sunday.

“They are already being sent to the parishes in anticipation of the Easter Vigil,” said Czuchta. “It’s such a beautiful, active, busy time in the parish... the last thing you want is for them to worry about all these items that are required.”

Czuchta said there have been some close calls in past years. He remembers one year when a parish called the office just hours before the Easter Vigil service. Someone had accidentally dropped and broken the Paschal candle and they needed a new one.

“There have been occasions where we’ve delivered right up to a couple of hours before the Easter Vigil,” he said.

There are a lot of moving parts to consider when a parish prepares for Holy Week.

Those participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults are finishing their last classes as they prepare to be baptized, confirmed and receive the Holy Eucharist at the Easter vigil.

Mass choirs are practising liturgical music special to the season. Parish groups are hosting Lenten reflections and retreats. Pastors are organizing schedules for confession in between their visits to nearby hospitals and residences.

Fr. Janusz Blazejak said organizing confession hours is St. Maximilian Kolbe parish’s biggest undertaking during Holy Week. Considered the largest parish population in the archdiocese, the Mississauga parish offers confessions every day leading up to Easter Sunday.

Blazejak coordinates about 30 priests from Toronto, Hamilton and London to hear confessions from 6 p.m. to about 10 or 11 p.m. every night throughout the week. He stations all the priests in the confessionals of the church hall, the sanctuary and the John Paul II Polish Cultural Centre next door.

St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish typically has about 7,000 people attending over the eight weekend Masses, but during Holy Week, the number attending Mass increases 25-30 per cent, said Blazejak.

“There’s something amazing to see the lineups (for confession), especially on Holy Wednesday, you just don’t believe it,” said Blazejak. “Usually, you have to wait up to one hour.”

During the last two weeks of Lent or “Passiontide,” sacristans and parish volunteers cover all statues and images of Jesus, Mary and the saints in a penitential purple cloth. In some parishes, these items may be removed from the church. This ancient custom is a reminder of the penitential aspect of the season and heightened anticipation for Easter. The only images not covered are the Stations of the Cross.

For the cathedral, the Chrism Mass (which often takes place on Holy Tuesday morning instead of Holy Thursday) takes the most preparation. Priests from across the archdiocese gather at the cathedral to bless the holy oils that will be used for the Church’s ministry throughout the year.

Before the Mass, the cathedral and Cardinal Thomas Collins also host a luncheon.

In preparation for this day, Aleixo and his fellow sacristans will spend the Monday after Palm Sunday rearranging decorations and setting up the sanctuary. Forty bishops and priests are concelebrating in the Mass, not including about 300 priests that will be attending. This means all their vestments need to be laid out and ready.

The oils to be blessed are prepared. All the regular materials that will be placed on credence tables, like clean linen, the chalices and ciboriums for Holy Communion, the Roman Misssal and Pontifical books need to be in their proper places.

After Mass on Holy Thursday, the altar is stripped of all cloths, candlesticks and decor. The tabernacle is empty. All candles are extinguished and the holy water fonts are empty. All these external signs are meant to prepare the faithful for the glory and beauty of Easter Sunday.


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Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

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