By Ed Langlois

Of the Sentinel

On quiet weekday mornings in many Catholic churches, silent disciples are at work. They dust, sweep, press and fold, among other inglorious tasks.

They are the ladies, and sometimes the men, of altar societies.

Once the major volunteer organization for women in almost every parish, altar societies have hit upon slimmer times. Around three quarters of Oregon's Catholic churches still have a society, and most members are retirees. Generally busier lives for women and a multiplication of other lay ministries seem to have caused the shift. But those who value the behind-the-scenes work see a renaissance around the bend. They are finding ways to adapt and carry on.

'We just put out a flyer to get people interested, and we consider every woman in the parish automatically a member,' says Janice Tankersley, president of the Women's Club at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Southeast Portland.

As at Our Lady of Sorrows, many parishes have changed the name of the group from 'altar society' to something like 'women's club.' That expands the possibility of activity and of interest, leaders say.

At Our Lady of Sorrows, the Women's Club recently made a major donation to a building project and has begun sending cards to ill parishioners. The women also take charge of receptions for funerals and weddings.

Some parish women's groups have begun charitable outreach beyond the parish ranks, to homeless people, for example. At Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego, the women's group supports a house for pregnant teens and a nursing home.

But the core mission of the altar society remains - provide and care for the bread, wine, vessels, linens, vestments, candles, flowers and anything else needed for the altar of worship.

Instead of coming from dues, money for the supplies and projects at most parishes comes from a series of plant sales, garage sales, luncheons, fashion shows and other benefits.

'We could use a lot more active people,' says Tankersley of Our Lady of Sorrows. 'It's the same older people who do all the work. Today the way most women work outside the home, they can't give much time. That is something the whole society is dealing with.'

At Our Lady of the Valley Parish in La Grande, about 70 women are members of what was once called the altar society and is now called Women of Our Lady of the Valley. By today's standards, that is a large group for a parish with only about 300 active households.

'I think we've tried really hard to get new people involved,' says Theresa Beery, the 58-year-old chairwoman of the group. 'We reach out and now have lots of different activities. It's amazing what we get done and get paid for.'

Beery, who grew up in the parish, recalls the days when her mother was active in the altar society. She recalls huge picnics and other social events the women planned with utmost care.

'Things are not as well attended any more,' Beery says. 'There are so many distractions, and people are so busy, and most of the women work now. It seems really hectic.'

The decline in the number of priests, says Beery, has left lay people with more to do to tend the parish. Education, bringing the Eucharist to the sick, and organizing youths - once the job of the clergy - are left to lay people. Those kind of high-profile jobs keep people busy so that the quiet needs of the altar are left to a shrinking few.

'I think it is more of a time thing than anything else,' says Sheila Garcia of the U.S. Catholic bishops' office on family, laity and women. 'But we push for organizations that have room for everyone's talents. If someone's gift is to take care of the altar cloth, more power to them.'

'In a sense they are a dying breed, but most parishes that have good altar societies consider them the most important organization in the parish,' says Father Arthur Dernbach, pastor of St. Boniface Parish in Sublimity. 'They are helpful in so many ways.'

The society at St. Boniface is a 'good unit,' says the priest. It not only cares for all the needs of the altar, but on occasion gathers clothing for area needy.

In any given week, parish women's groups are behind major church events.

In Ione this spring, the altar society at St. William Parish threw receptions for confirmandi and grads and even had gifts for the grads.

At St. Mary Our Lady of the Dunes in Florence, the women's group is about to prepare a breakfast for men on Fathers' Day.

Some women's societies, like the one at St. Helen Parish in Sweet Home, offer scholarships to outstanding young parishioners.

The altar society in Yamhill at St. John Parish has its own gift shop, supplying spiritual aids and books.

The basic work of cleaning and purchasing may seem materialistic. But these women see their efforts as a spiritual venture. At Our Lady of Sorrows in Portland, for example, each meeting and project begins and ends with a significant time of prayer.

Marie Taylor, president of the altar society in Lake Oswego, says the groups also serve to foster companionship and spiritual growth.

'The Blessed Mother is our patron and we do what we do to honor her,' says Joan Couch, a member of the altar society at St. Augustine Parish in Lincoln City. 'We do such worthwhile things.'

Each year, the 80 members of the Lincoln City group sell flowers on Mother's Day as a benefit for the crisis pregnancy group Birthright.

This year, the altar society's main project has been to renovate a shed that once held nothing but rusty nails and obsolete lawn mowers. Working side by side with the Knights of Columbus, the women made a flower room of it. They use the space to prepare flower arrangements for the church.

'We have gotten a larger attendance,' says St. Augustine altar society president Joanie Kaletka.

Like most other altar society leaders, she wishes for more women, but understands the current pressures of careers and family.

In one Oregon parish, the altar society disbanded this year, but about a dozen people simply take turns cleaning and doing other projects.

'The basic reason for disbanding was not that the people weren't called to minister in this fashion,' says Gail Freeman, who served as one of the last leaders of the altar society at Shepherd of the Valley Parish in Central Point. 'But because our parish has grown, there are so many people involved in so many areas. Altar society members were in two or three different organizations. Membership was getting older and older, and younger men and women were visiting the homebound, being eucharistic ministers and teaching.'

Older members of the society could not keep up the pace of raising funds, says Freeman. Though the meetings and the bookkeeping are done, volunteers still organize funeral luncheons, clean the sanctuary, maintain vestments and tend the candles.

Some activities can't be replaced, such as the annual $1,000 cash donation the society made to the parish, or the support given a Mexican orphanage and the local retreat house.

Freeman and other women think that interest in altar societies may wax again.

'Sometimes there is the mentality that just old ladies do this,' she says with a chuckle. 'At the same time people appreciate what's done. Somehow the work will continue. We want to see God's house beautiful. It is something you give quietly and give for the love of the Lord.'


'There are altar societies in connection with most parish churches,' says the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia.

That is no longer as true as it was, but it speaks of a once-flourishing sort of Catholic ministry. Most Catholic women belonged to an altar society until the 1960s. The groups provided and cared for bread, wine, chalices, patens, vestments, cloths, candles, flowers and other items used in worship.

In the very early church, when Masses were held in houses, women undoubtedly carried on such functions. Later, sacristans took care of the work and supplies as well as serving as doorkeeper and bell ringer.

St. Isidore (570-636) writes of a 'custodian of the sacristy entrusted with the care of the church . . . of the sacred veils and vestments, vessels, books and all appurtenances, of the oils, candles and lights.'

In cathedrals, the sacristan was to be a priest, says medieval church code.

But as the centuries moved on, groups of pious women began to take on the work in parish churches. By the late 19th century, some altar societies were strong, with their own finances.

Now, they are facing a shortage of members. To attract youth, one altar society in Porter's Lake, Nova Scotia, has an Internet Web site.

Source: Catholic Encyclopedia


Archdiocese of Portland Archives

The ladies of St. Joseph Church, Jacksonville, 1885.


'It is something you give quietly and give for the love of the Lord.'

- Gail Freeman of Central Point on the work of altar societies