Parishioner builds new altar for St. Joseph Church in Lawrence County

Bishop J. Mark Spalding dedicated the new altar at historic St. Joseph Church in Lawrence County on Oct 1. Parishioner Andy Augustin designed and built the new permanent altar. Photo courtesy of St. Joseph Church

Thanks to the woodworking talents of Andy Augustin, a parish council member at St. Joseph Church in St. Joseph, Tennessee, the parish church now has a new permanent altar. 

The altar is constructed in the Gothic Revival style so that it matches with the original furnishings of the historic church, located in Lawrence County. It replaces a much simpler altar that was added to the sanctuary after Vatican II.

Father Paul Nguyen, pastor of St. Joseph Church and Sacred Heart Church in Loretto, along with the St. Joseph parish community, welcomed Bishop J. Mark Spalding to St. Joseph on Oct. 1 to dedicate the new altar.

Augustin, who previously made some cabinets and the ambo for the church, said designing and building the altar in his home workshop was “a labor of love.” 

“It was a pretty steep learning curve” to build such a significant piece in the elaborate Gothic Revival style, said Augustin, who recently retired from teaching at Loretto High School after 38 years. 

“I gained an appreciation for how much work went into building the side altars all those years ago,” Augustin said. Those altars were likely built around 1885, when the current church was dedicated. The parish was officially established in 1872. 

St. Joseph is one of three Catholic parishes in Lawrence County, along with Sacred Heart in Loretto and Sacred Heart in Lawrenceburg, which were established by Father Henry Heuser and a group of settlers from the Cincinnati German Catholic Homestead Society, during the early days of the Diocese of Nashville. Many of them were farmers and skilled craftsmen and helped build the churches.

Augustin, a woodworking and carpentry hobbyist, used hand tools similar to what the original builders might have used for some aspects of the new altar, but also took advantage of modern power tools.

“It’s remarkable that out in the country in 1885 they could manage to do all that,” Augustin said, commenting on the solid construction of the church building and the beauty of the interior.

The new altar table is constructed of wood stained and painted to match the colors of the original side altars with details embellished with gold leaf paint. With a solid natural stone tabletop, the complete altar weighs more than 500 pounds.

As with the side altars, the new altar’s tripartite front features a central panel containing a quatrefoil within a circle. In this design, the quatrefoil represents the four evangelists as well as the four corners of the earth; the circle represents eternity. Within the quatrefoil is the IHS monogram superimposed on a Botonee Cross. The monogram represents the name Jesus, and the three-buttoned arms of the cross represent the trinity.

There is a smaller panel with a simple gothic arch, echoing the design of the church’s windows, on either side of the central panel. The panel to the left contains a carved banner around a stalk of lilies, which are often used to represent the integrity of St. Joseph. On the right panel, a similar banner wraps around a carpenter’s square and saw, symbols for St. Joseph the carpenter, the parish’s patron saint.

Beneath the stone top of the altar, a reliquary crucifix – donated by Sacred Heart Loretto parishioner Joan Augustin in memory of her parents, James and Rosalia Augustin, distant relatives of Andy Augustin – containing relics of St. Pope Pius X, St. Pope Celestine V, St. Benedict, St. Walburga, St. Placidus, St. Theresa of Portugal, St. Gertrude, and Blessed Irmingard, lies inside of a box made of wood from the 1872 church at St. Joseph, symbolically pulling the parish’s past and present together.

The new altar is part of the ongoing restoration of historic St. Joseph Church, supported by the $1.5 million bequest that the parish received in 2011 from parishioner Helen Pottkotter.