Vesperale (vĕs pər ah′ lay)
Here’s one of those old school items that used to be commonplace in churches and is now very difficult to find – a situation that we at the St. Martha’s Guild consider a gauntlet thrown down! We must resurrect this lovely tradition! And, as often happens when we encounter something new, we kept forgetting the name of it. After asking Br. Mark, for the third time, “What do you call this thing again?” He said, “Easy, pray Vespers and then go out for some ale.” Well, OK then. That did the trick.
The vesperale is a covering, usually wool felt, that is placed over the altar cloth between Masses to protect it from flaming candle wicks and dust. It indicates that the sanctuary is at rest. These are very practical and necessary. We have a really lovely linen altar cloth in our mending pile right now with a huge and very sad burn hole. The culprit was a chunk of flaming wick that broke off of the long candlelighter and fire bombed the pristine linen below. It was probably a really terrifying moment for the poor acolyte.
And while vesperales do serve a practical purpose, the nuns couldn’t resist embellishing them with embroidery and words; “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,” “Ecce Agnus Dei,” “O Bone Jesu...”
We made this one for the Polish St. Anne Chapel in Lawton, Michigan.
Occasionally we get an altar, as in the case of the St. Anne Chapel, with a tabernacle that juts out a little. We like to add an embroidered border around that cutout.
Our first vesperale was made for our Springfield parish, St. Katharine Drexel. We thought it would be a perfect project to relaunch our large antique slate frame. The altar is quite long so there was much rolling of felt on both stretcher bars. The project was enormously wonderful with many hands merrily chain stitching away. I think we put in about 180 hours to complete it. We were really sad when it was done which tells you a little about how enjoyable this is.
Then we purchased a Cornely chain stitch machine. What a crazy piece of equipment! It was patented in 1874 when sewing machines were treadle powered. Even under manpower it runs circles around our chain stitching fingers. It’s Paul Bunyan all over again. We have a variable speed Servo motor hooked up to ours, and now we can crank out the embroidery in about 6 hours. Not as fun, maybe, but a little more efficient.
Getting an initial layout for a vesperale is a bit of a rigamarole. The scalloped border has to be sized to fit exactly within the length of the altar plus the overhang. Then it is printed as a repeat pattern piece and traced out on the felt with careful fitting of the corners.
Letters are transferred using the traditional prick and pounce method and then traced with a gel pen. After the chain stitching is finished the scalloped edge is carefully trimmed.
Then our work is done and we hand it off to the acolytes to deal with the management of this long piece of thick wool. When Mass is ready to begin (and the candles have been lit!) the servers fold up the felt from each end of the altar toward the center like a scroll. Then it is removed to the sacristy for the duration of the Mass. The servers bring it back to the altar before extinguishing the candles after Mass. A small cross is embroidered on the back edge at the middle to help the servers place it in the correct position, centering it on the tabernacle before it is unfolded.
Here’s our current favorite vesperale, a custom design to fit the beautiful alabastar altar outside the sacristy.
We designed the scallop using fretwork in the carved wood altarpiece hanging on the wall above the altar. The fleur de lis points just tip over the beveled edge to create a nice border on the top.
So, yeah, put a vesperale on your altar. The servers like to play with them, and the sewing ladies, will be less terrified about the flaming missiles raining down on their finely stitched linens.