History, mystery uncovered in Vermont tabernacle's renovation

ORLEANS, Vt. (CNS) -- When Father Timothy Naples sent the tabernacle from St. Theresa Church in Orleans to be refurbished, he was surprised to learn a list of names had been tucked inside its lining. He thought they were the names of people who had given the tabernacle to the church in 1952.

They weren't; he had come upon a mystery.

Even parishioners did not recognize the names.

After showing the list to a writer for Vermont Catholic, magazine of the Diocese of Burlington -- who did recognize the names -- Father Naples learned that it was, in fact, a list of people who had contributed to the renovation of a Massachusetts convent and its chapel in 1952, a decade before the Second Vatican Council had even convened.

He learned that the cylindrical tabernacle with a medallion of the Blessed Trinity had been in the convent of the Sisters of St. Anne in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, which closed in 1968.

"It's such a happy surprise to learn this sacred item still finds use for our Catholic neighbors in Vermont. No doubt, many good Sisters of St. Anne spent hours in prayer before this tabernacle; hopefully this worshipping community will remember them in their prayers," said Mark E. Dupont, secretary for communications for the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, which includes Turners Falls.

Unlike today when there are strict guidelines for dispersing sacred items, many years ago there were not such measures in place, which would sometimes disappear and be lost forever. "So it's consoling to know this tabernacle found a proper and fitting home," he said.

Now fully restored and back "home" in Orleans, the tabernacle was the centerpiece of a recent evening prayer service at which Father Naples, the pastor, reinstalled the refurbished tabernacle in the center of the back wall of the sanctuary beneath a crucifix.

He explained the symbol on the front of the tabernacle: The three interlocking circles represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the three eternal persons of one true God.

Among those in attendance was Louise Boucher Croll of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, whose father, maternal grandparents, maternal great-grandmother and other relatives had contributed to the renovation of the Turners Falls convent and thus named on the list.

"It was an opportune moment for God to speak to me about faith," she said. "We pray for increased faith. This (experience) transcended time. It was like I could touch the faith of my forebears."

Many of Croll's French-Canadian forebears were listed -- including a great-aunt who was stationed at the convent when it closed -- but when Croll realized her Irish great-grandmother was listed among them, she was astounded. "She had contributed, and she was a widow and didn't have much money and no connection to the Sisters of St. Anne," she said. "The whole message for me was about faith. It spoke to me about all of their Catholic faith. Their faith was very palpable to me."

Asked why the names were placed in the tabernacle at St. Anne's Convent, Sister Paulette Gardner, a Sister of St. Anne and the director of communications for her religious order, replied, "That seems to be the $64,000 question, and I have yet to find anyone who ever experienced the placement of names in the tabernacle."

Research and numerous interviews conducted by the Vermont Catholic failed to turn up a solid explanation.

It seems that the names of those who restored the Turners Falls convent were put into the tabernacle lining in 1952 as a way of dedicating them and their generosity to the Lord, Father Naples surmised.

Their placement there may have been an imitation of what St. John Vianney did in France. In 1814, he had erected a large statue of Mary Immaculate on the pediment of his church. He had a vermeil heart made and suspended from the neck of the miraculous Virgin. In it he placed the names of all the parishioners of Ars, written on a white silk ribbon.

St. Anne's School opened in 1896; the sisters lived in the school building for a few years before the purchase of a nearby building for a convent. "On the first morning at the new convent, the sisters had to return to the school to get what was needed for breakfast as those items had been left behind in the moving," remarked Sister Agnes Marie Hanks, archivist for the Sisters of St. Anne in Marlborough, Massachusetts.

She said the tabernacle would not have been in the school unless there were a chapel there, but can find no documentation there was.

A 1952 newspaper clipping about the convent renovation includes a photo of the tabernacle beneath a cross in the center of the altar; lilies were placed on either side of it.

After the convent closed, its furnishings -- including the tabernacle -- were dispersed. In the 1980s, Father Albert Baltz, then pastor of St. Theresa Parish, traded that church's tabernacle with a Massachusetts-born priest who had acquired the convent tabernacle.

For the last three years, Father Naples had suggested to the parish council that the tabernacle should be refurbished. "It was apparent up close that most of the old finish had worn off. But it didn't look that bad from a distance," he said.

When the church was vandalized last December, the tabernacle was not damaged but was flipped upside down onto the main altar. Father Naples removed it and the Blessed Sacrament from the church when the building was cleaned, but once it was ready for use again, he decided to substitute another tabernacle and have the other refurbished.

A tabernacle of similar size had been in the St. Paul's School chapel in nearby Barton, so he used that one, placing a smaller one that he had on hand into the school chapel.

It cost $2,400 to refinish the "St. Anne's" tabernacle, to replace all the interior linings and to fix minor dents; the Trinity Parish Ladies Guild covered the cost.

Pauline Sanville of Most Holy Trinity Parish said the story of the tabernacle's refurbishing did not begin well because of the vandalism, "but it ended up we are blessed; that's the Lord's way."

The original list of names was replaced in the tabernacle when it was refurbished; Father Naples made copies of it available at the prayer service.

Paul Bathalon of St. Thomas Church in Underhill Center made a drawing of the Holy Trinity symbol on the front of the tabernacle, and Father Naples is using it as a logo for the parish: Most Holy Trinity, which includes St. Theresa Church as well as St. Paul Church in Barton and St. John Vianney Church in Irasburg.

As he reflected on the mysteries presented when the tabernacle at St. Theresa's was refurbished, Father Naples said, "It honestly makes me long to spread Eucharistic devotion."

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Urban is a staff writer for Vermont Catholic, magazine of the Diocese of Burlington.