At St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Mesa, they call it "the new contemporary altar," but its wood components go way back into the first decades of the nearly 100 years of the congregation.
The recently dedicated altar was crafted from long-forgotten wood from the first church building erected at Pepper Place and Macdonald in downtown Mesa in the 1920s. The scraps of wood were salvaged from the old church, torn down in the 1960s, then stored away in a barn at the edge of St. Mark's campus, 322 N. Horne. It's unknown who made the choice to sock away fragments of the structure.
Then came parishioner and wood craftsman Don Henney. He saw the chance to build a portable altar and candle stands in memory of his late wife, Boni, and his late father, Robert Henney, who had been a leader in the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York at Buffalo. Now it supplements the main altar on the church's chancel and can be rolled into place at the lower level in front of the pews for the 9 a.m. contemporary services on Sunday and the 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. services on Wednesday. The main altar serves three other services during the week.
"It is not entirely coincidental that this has been offered as we go into our 100th year in 2009," said the Rev. Jeremy Warnick, rector of the city's oldest Episcopal parish, with about 375 families. "It becomes a celebration piece for our 100-year history."
"This is a living historical creation," Warnick said. "It stresses the continuity of the parish's live story from its beginnings in one place in Mesa in a church building that was very traditional, and what one might expect from a little country church, into a place that is a very modern, warm building in a different setting."
Warnick said the altar represents a piece of artistry that also serves as a symbolic link to the early church.
"In the barn were a lot of old treasures, including scrap wood from the first church on Pepper," Warnick said. One of Henney's first decisions was to turn wood into two 4-foot-tall saguaro cactus-shaped candle stands. Each has two arms and the trunk, and they stand on each end of the new table.
Also found in the barn was the early church's credence table (a side table in churches where items and implements are set before being taken to the altar table).
As he crafted the new altar table, Henney took two support legs from the old credence table, which feature cross-shaped cutouts. Behind the cutouts are placed colored transparent paper that match the liturgical color for each segment of the church year.
The two legs were placed at an angle below the table's surface. In the middle, Henney created three interlocking circles, the symbol of the Trinity, and suspended them in that space. The top of the table features an intricate pattern of inlaid woods, cut to radiate toward the center. In the center is a rectangular slab of polished marble engraved with crosses. Inset marble is a customary feature for altar tops in Episcopal churches. It matches the slab in the main altar. The table is kidney-shaped with the priest standing in the slightly recessed area. "That roundedness sort of suggests the feeling of arms embracing - like the arms of the father embracing his bride," Warnick said. That is accentuated when church members surround the table and join hands around the sanctuary, he said.
Henney primarily used wood that had been part of shelves in the original church. "The shelving was cut and installed, and the hands on the front carved into it," the artist explained. "There was no effort expended to hide the old nail and screw holes from when the material was used for shelving." Instead those blemishes "add character and show the timelessness of the materials," he said.
The altar and the candle holders have matching polished black wood bases, and there are hidden wheels under the table for easy movement.
Warnick sees strong parallels in the "recycling" of the wood and the church's strong emphasis on environmental consciousness. Its main building and sanctuary were completed in 1982 with a specially designed cooling and heating system that traps heat at higher levels while keeping it comfortable where the people are. Clerestory windows provide all daytime lighting. "The architect designed the sanctuary to be asymmetrical to emphasize that everything that human beings create is imperfect," Warnick said. "Only what God creates is perfect."
Boni Henney died in October 2007, and her husband embarked on the project to commemorate both her and Don Henney's father. At that point, Henney had already made the candlesticks and decided to make the altar to complement them.
While the new altar was officially dedicated recently, it later will be "blessed" by Bishop Kirk Steven Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. "It is required in the prayers of the church for an altar and baptismal font to be officially blessed and dedicated by a bishop," Warnick said.
"I hope this altar gets continual use for many years to come and is a source of comfort and pleasure for all," Henney said.