December 20, 2019

Custom seats are act of ‘chair-ity’ for parish’s sesquicentennial

Father Sean Danda, pastor of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, stands proudly with the three sanctuary chairs custom-designed and built by parishioners in time for the parish’s feast day Mass in November 2018 during the faith community’s sesquicentennial year. The artisans volunteered at least 1,600 hours on the project. (Submitted photo)

Father Sean Danda, pastor of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, stands proudly with the three sanctuary chairs custom-designed and built by parishioners in time for the parish’s feast day Mass in November 2018 during the faith community’s sesquicentennial year. The artisans volunteered at least 1,600 hours on the project. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

During the Nov. 3 Mass marking the 150th anniversary of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, a trio of exquisite art pieces adorned the sanctuary.

They were not sculptured figures, nor were they hung images.

They were chairs, a large one for the presider and two smaller ones for the parish deacons.

But these were no ordinary sanctuary seats. Each was custom-designed, constructed of richly-colored woods with 23-carat gold-leaf details, hand-finished with four layers of lacquer—and crafted entirely by St. Malachy parishioners.

The liturgical chairs were a long time coming.

When the church was built 11 years ago, says parish pastor Father Sean Danda, “it didn’t come ready-made with an altar and accompanying fixtures. They’ve been adding things along the way.”

Several talented parishioners hand-crafted the wooden altar, ambo, candlesticks, tabernacle base, gifts table and pieces for the church’s Blessed Sacrament chapel and Marian shrine.

All that was left by 2018 was the sanctuary chairs.

But two important Masses were rapidly approaching—one in September launching the parish’s sesquicentennial year, and one in November celebrating the feast of St. Malachy.

And those who had created the existing sanctuary pieces were no longer available. One of those volunteers, Larry Garetto, had even sold his expensive woodworking equipment before moving out of state.

But like the precisely-fitting pieces in the fine-crafted chairs, a new team of parishioners with complementary skills fell perfectly into place, and just in the nick of time.

It began with Bob Kasnak. He and his wife Leslie are artisans for their antique furniture business, Kasnak Restorations.

Kasnak admits he’d been approached about building the chairs by various pastors since the new church was built in 2009. But the timing was never right.

Then one day in 2018, Kasnak ran into two other known woodcrafters in the parish, Bill Buss and Roger Manternach.

“Unbeknownst to me, Bill was the one who bought Larry’s equipment,” he says. “And Bill said Larry told him, ‘I’ll sell it to you cheap, but you have to build these chairs.’ ”

Also unbeknownst to Kasnak was that then-pastor Father Vince Lampert, not wanting to wait any longer, had already selected chairs to purchase for the sanctuary.

After a conversation with Father Lampert, the priest agreed to commission the work to the three parishioners instead.

So the components were in place: Kasnak had the space to do the work, Buss had the equipment, and Manternach made for a third gifted craftsman to work on the project. Plus Garetto contributed the designs, and Leslie helped with the hand-finishing.

Now all they needed was time—something they had little of. The team started working on the chairs in March of 2018. The September Mass was seven months away, and the St. Malachy feast day Mass was nine months away.

Selecting the lumber was easy. They retrieved from storage the dark African Wenge and brown Honduras Mahogany wood already purchased by the parish for all of the sanctuary pieces. Kasnak calls the material—plus an added piece of pale Australian Lacewood—“exotic hardwoods for fine furniture use.”

The task of building the chairs, however, was not so easy.

“Chairs are among the most challenging of furniture items to build,” says Kasnak. “And these were exceptionally so due to the unusual, diagonally-oriented [legs], the extra-large size to fit the grand [sanctuary] space and the difficulty of the construction and decorative detail.”

Details like crafting a separate wooden Celtic-style cross and circle inlay for the backrest of the presider’s chair. Or adding a Celtic trinity knot in 23-karat gold-leaf on the backrest of the deacons’ chairs. Or using the same gilding to cover the spires atop the back legs of all three chairs.

“It took four times longer than we thought it would,” Kasnak admits with a laugh. “The wives were getting impatient.”

Nevertheless, the team completed the presider’s chair in time for the September 2018 Mass, and the deacons’ chairs were finished for the parish’s feast day Mass in November.

In total, says Kasnak, the project took “a minimum of 1,600 hours and tens-of-thousands of dollars of volunteer labor.”

Father Danda appreciates the parishioner-made pieces.

“In my five years [of priest formation] in Rome, I was so blessed to see generation after generation of art and handiwork in the churches of Europe,” he says. “Nowadays, we only allow the ‘professionals’ to build and adorn our churches.

“So this was a breath of fresh air to me to receive the creation of some skilled parishioners in these beautiful liturgical chairs.”

Seeing the chairs when he’s worshipping at Mass at St. Malachy gives Kasnak “a sense of pride and satisfaction,” he says. “And I like where Father Danda set them under the crucifix. Before, the chairs were placed in the back behind the altar.”

The move of the sanctuary chairs serves a deep purpose, says Father Danda.

“We placed them at the foot of our crucifix in our sanctuary symbolizing how the priest stands in persona Christi capitis [“in the person of Christ the head”], especially in celebrating the Mass.

“I pray the young men of our parish will make this connection and begin to imagine themselves in that same role one day [while] discerning the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood in our archdiocese.”

And if one such young man discerns a call from God to be a shepherd, and another to be a permanent deacon, perhaps one day they will sit in the unique, hand-crafted, aesthetic sanctuary chairs with the year 2018 carved on the bottom. †

 

Related story: St. Malachy Parish marks ‘150 years of making saints’

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