Online Edition – Vol. V, No. 10: February 2000
Unexpected splendor in Alabama-
The Consecration of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament
by James Hitchcock
On the Sunday before Christmas an especially moving and significant liturgical ceremony took place in the unlikely place of Hanceville, Alabama — the consecration of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery of the Poor Clare Nuns, a community primarily known because of the EWTN television network founded and still directed by the community’s abbess, Mother Angelica.
The shrine, which was three years in construction, serves both as a church open to the public and as a chapel of the cloistered nuns of the community. Most of the televised Masses on EWTN will originate from the new shrine.
Hanceville is near Cullman and, like the rest of central and northern Alabama, has only a small Catholic population, which makes the existence of the new monastery especially striking. (For many years there has been a male Benedictine abbey, Saint Bernard’s, in Cullman.) The studios of EWTN remain some miles away in Birmingham, and the relocation of the monastery will effectively protect the cloistered life of the nuns. (Like many religious communities faithful to their authentic tradition, Our Lady of the Angels attracts a steady influx of vocations, and there is a new male community attached to the monastery as well.)
Our Lady of the Angels occupies many acres, separated from the surrounding land by white fences of the kind associated with horse farms. Animals graze in the fields as the visitor approaches the monastery, which is set on a hill and makes a breath-taking first impression, so unexpected is it in that characteristic Southern American landscape.
The buildings are in Italian Romanesque style, built mainly of composite limestone and brick, with red tile roofs and the traditional square Italianate bell tower, which houses a fourteen-bell carillon. Two arms of a cloistered walkway reach out from each side of the church and form a courtyard that the visitor crosses on the way to the shrine. On the facade is the exhortation "Adoremus in Æternum Sanctissimum Sacramentum" ("Let Us Adore Forever the Most Holy Sacrament"). The building is oriented toward the East, in keeping with the tradition by which at the end of history Jesus will come from the East.
The interior, by present-day liturgical and architectural standards, can only be described as splendid, and among other things once again gives the lie to the claim that, for technical and other practical reasons, it is no longer possible to build traditional churches. It takes its inspiration from Assisi and other Umbrian churches and monasteries.
Much of the church is marble, and behind the altar is a soaring reredos of red cedar ornamented in gold leaf. Set in the reredos is a gold tabernacle, and at the peak of the reredos — 55 feet above the floor — is a platform where, during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, an eight-foot monstrance is placed, accessible to the priest by stairs not visible from the body of the church.
All the furnishings of the church — altars, floors, stations of the cross, statuary, sacred vessels, doors, vestments, confessionals, lecterns, pews — have been hand-crafted. Especially notable are the intricate patterns in the marble floors, inlaid with jasper, as was the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The German-made stained-glass windows depict scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary and of Franciscan saints. The main door is of bronze and displays the joys and sorrows of Mary.
To the right of the sanctuary, as the worshippers face the altar, is an enclosed area where the nuns worship during public masses in the church. Behind the reredos is their private chapel, where they chant the Divine Office and participate in the Mass when it is not being celebrated in the church.
The ceremony of consecration, which relatively few people ever have the opportunity to witness, lasted about three and a half hours. A special choir and orchestra sang the Latin ordinary of the Mass, primarily the settings of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with occasional English hymns. Most of the Mass was in English. Bishop David E. Foley of Birmingham officiated facing toward the congregation, after having decreed a month before the ceremony that Mass ad orientem ("toward the East" — with the priest facing the same direction as the people) is forbidden by Church law. While Bishop Foley gave Communion to the choir and orchestra, other celebrants administered it to the congregation, who knelt at the brass Communion rail.
The consecration began with a procession bringing the relics of Saint Alexander, martyred by the Romans in Germany in 305. Holy water was blessed, and the bishop and his assistants traversed the church sprinkling the people and the walls of the building. After the homily and the chanting of the Litany of the Saints, the relics were inserted into the altar cavity and cemented into place by a representative of the company that built the altar. The process took a full ten minutes, as the skilled workman carefully laid down layers of mortar and spread them with a trowel.
Bishop Foley then removed his chasuble and put on a white germial — like a mason’s apron. A flagon of holy oil was brought in procession, and the bishop proceeded first to anoint the altar thoroughly with oil, then to walk around the four walls of the church, using his open hand to trace large crosses of oil on the walls, finally returning to the sanctuary to cleanse his hands with bread, lemon, and water. He then incensed the altar on all sides, and deacons went through the church incensing the people and the structure itself.
Three nuns of the monastery, who had been seated in the first pew, then came to the altar and thoroughly wiped away the oil with linen cloths, after which they reverently placed three linen altar cloths on it, thus preparing the place where the eucharistic sacrifice would soon be offered for the first time.
At the end of Mass, Bishop Foley, also for the first time, ascended the staircase behind the reredos and solemnly placed the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance, having enjoined the congregation to remain for a time after Mass to adore the Blessed Sacrament.
The church was of course crowded to capacity, and among those in the front pews were the executives, with their families, of the various Alabama companies involved in the construction of the church. None of them appeared to be Catholic, but all of them appeared to follow the ceremony intently and reverently.
Besides Bishop Foley, concelebrants included Bishop Dermott Molloy of Peru, Bishop Colin Campbell of Nova Scotia, Bishop Raymond J. Boland of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and retired Bishop Paul V. Dudley of Sioux Falls (S.D.).
Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, is a columnist in the diocesan press and writes and lectures frequently on contemporary Church issues.