JoAnn Eirvin, head sacristan at St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland, spreads a new altar linen. She’s replacing a cloth that had a small stain from the consecrated wine. She’ll take that one home and soak it in water in a container so she can then pour the water, with its dissolved consecrated wine stain, onto the ground before washing the linen. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
JoAnn Eirvin, head sacristan at St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland, spreads a new altar linen. She’s replacing a cloth that had a small stain from the consecrated wine. She’ll take that one home and soak it in water in a container so she can then pour the water, with its dissolved consecrated wine stain, onto the ground before washing the linen. (Kristen Hannum/Catholic Sentinel)
Every week, JoAnn Eirvin irons the altar cloths, purificators and other linens for her parish, St. Juan Diego in Northwest Portland. As she works, iron in hand, she prays for people.

“I’m not a saint,” she says. “I’m not saying I enjoy it every week. But I don’t mind. It goes quickly.”

Eirvin and hundreds of other sacristans around the archdiocese are key to their parish’s smooth functioning. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains, a sacristan “carefully arranges the liturgical books, the vestments, and other things necessary in the celebration of the Mass” (No. 105).

Peggy Brice, secretary at St. Juan Diego, is more forceful. “The world would not function without them,” she says. “They’re the least appreciated and the most important.”

Father Terry O’Connell, pastor of St. Juan Diego, pauses to consider what his life would be like without sacristans. “It would be a lot,” he says.

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines the work of the sacristan as caring for the sacristy, the church and its contents. “In ancient times many duties of the sacristan were performed by the doorkeepers (ostiarii), later by the mansionarii and the treasurers.”

Denise Gende, one of the sacristans at St. Agatha Parish in Southeast Portland, compares the sacristan’s work to that of being the mom who makes everything run so smoothly that no one questions how the dinner got on the table. “It’s the behind-the-scenes things that allow the priest to celebrate the mystery of the sacrifice of the Eucharist without having to worry about details. He needs to know the cruet with the water to add to the wine is filled, and the lavabo and pitcher for washing his hands are right there.”

“What’s satisfying to me is when the Mass goes smoothly,” says Ray Miller, sacristan at St. Paul Parish in Eugene. “The candles are lit, the doors unlocked and it’s seamless.”

Miller notes that it’s not just the regular Masses where sacristans are needed. In 2017, sacristans at St. Paul made things ready for 20 funerals.

“To have people stop by, later on, at a Sunday Mass, and thank you for your assistance at a funeral means things went well,” Miller says. “That means there was honor and reverence for the deceased.”

At St. Paul, as at St. Juan Diego and St. Agatha, a team of sacristans helps one another, taking responsibility for different Masses. Sacristans may work in pairs — a husband and wife, for instance. At St. Paul, one pair of sacristans are two sisters who do the work together.

While historically sacristans were appointed or elected, today Catholics often become part of a sacristan team because of a willingness to help in that behind-the-scenes way.

Gende, at St. Agatha Parish, admits she doesn’t like being out in front. Ironically, though, she’s also “one of those front-row people, enthralled by everything it takes to prepare for Mass.”

When she was a girl, being an altar server wasn’t an option, so the first time she was in a sacristy she was in her 30s. “The first time I got to go back and touch the chalices and ciboria, I was full of awe.”

Gende remembers watching St. Agatha’s sacristan, Tim Ivers. She finally offered to help should he want to go on vacation. “He gifted me this ministry,” she says. “I learned so much from him.”

In Eugene, Miller began years ago when the head sacristan approached him and asked for help. “If you’re not busy next Sunday, could you help me set up?” Miller remembers him saying.

Before he knew it, Miller himself was head sacristan.

St. Juan Diego is a new parish, established in 2002, and didn’t have its own church in the early days. The sacristan was bringing the vessels from her home to Portland Community College and then to St. Gabriel Episcopal, the community’s temporary homes. She had cancer, and when she asked the community for help Eirvin stepped up. “I thought, ‘Here is a need, and I want to serve,’” she says.

Eirvin says serving as a sacristan is a peaceful ministry, one that doesn’t include having to rush. “It’s spiritual. I’m preparing this for the whole community to receive the Body and Blood of Christ so they’ll be fed.”

Father O’Connell says that sacristans come in all varieties, but they are often retired people.

“They put in extra time you wouldn’t realize or expect,” he says.

He also has noticed another commonality: conscientiousness.

Describing Eirvin, he says that she accepts the responsibility of the ministry and is very good at it.

Sacristans come in to organize cupboards and clean the ciborium and chalices, for instance. At home, cleaning the purificators and altar linens isn’t just a matter of throwing them in the wash. First Eirvin soaks them in a container and throws that water onto the ground outside. The same is true in the sacristy. The sacrarium, a special sink, doesn’t drain into the sewer system, but into the ground. This is a more honorable way to treat the dissolved stain from consecrated wine.

The sacristan also lets the business manager know when the parish is low on wine or hosts; they may take the time to scan catalogues and suggest changing the purificators to a type that is more absorbent or needs less ironing.

For all that, sacristans aren’t perfect. Father O’Connell remembers a time at St. Juan Diego when the sacristan forgot to leave the key to the tabernacle where it should have been, and he was left standing there until it could be brought to him.

“I did that once,” says Gende, who has developed a check list to preclude such mistakes.

“These things happen,” says Father O’Connell.

At St. Agatha, Gende is still learning from the new pastor, Father Luan Tran. “‘That’s the antependium,’ he told me the other day,” she says. “I said, ‘OK.’” An antependium is the decorated front of the altar.

While Gende can joke about her ministry, its deep meaning is never far from her mind.

“I’m giving what I can at this moment to the faith that has sustained me,” she says. “I’m giving back way less than I’ve received in peace of heart and peace of soul.”