Robert Schroeder and Charles Huschka collaborate to restore an original 1894 altar inlay at St. Patrick Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks to an altar’s significance when it states, “The altar, around which the Church is gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist, represents the two aspects of the same mystery: the altar of the sacrifice and the table of the Lord. This is all the more so since the Christian altar is the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful, both as the victim offered for our reconciliation and as food from heaven who is giving himself to us. ‘For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the body of Christ?’ asks St. Ambrose. He says elsewhere, ‘The altar represents the body [of Christ] and the body of Christ is on the altar.’” (CCC #1383)
The focal point of Mass and central to the sacrament of matrimony, the funeral liturgy and the source and summit of the Faith, each parish’s altar is unique and a point of reverence and joy within the community.
For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the body of Christ?
– St. Ambrose
This is especially true at St. Patrick Church in Elroy. Initially called Holy Trinity and dedicated by Bishop Heiss in 1877, a renovation was completed in 1894 and the parish was renamed St. Patrick. The renovated altar included a beautifully sculptured inlay that was developed especially for St. Patrick. The inlay was the altar’s defining visual cue, prominently depicting the Last Supper.
A Piece of History … Lost
The altar and its inlay were woven within the fabric of St. Patrick’s history for nearly 90 years. Various pastors updated and changed the building, but the inlay remained central to the sanctuary and altar. This all changed in the late 1960s when the pastor and parish renovated the altar to accommodate changes generated by Vatican II and the conference’s guidance regarding the direction pastors face during Mass. The old altar and its striking inlay were removed, and the rest of the sanctuary was remodeled.
Many of the items from the church were sold at auction, and the Last Supper inlay was one. Fred and Louise Jensen, friends of parishioner Charles “Chuck” Huschka, purchased the Last Supper inlay, which remained in their home until Louise donated it to the Elroy Area Historical Society. The Last Supper sculpture was not relegated to obscurity but remained in the museum for residents and parishioners alike to view.
Chuck and many other parishioners at the time of the church renovation were greatly saddened by the removal of the Last Supper sculpture and the altar, which had been part of his family’s Faith history for generations. Several years ago, Chuck approached the Parish Council and suggested an effort to return the Last Supper inlay to St. Patrick Church. Chuck said, “The Parish Council members are from Elroy and knew about the sculpture. Some younger members did not actually see it in the church, but they knew about it because they saw it at the museum.” The Parish Council, with the approval of Father John Ofori-Domah, approved the idea of returning the sculpture to St. Patrick Church.
The Plan Unfolds
The first step in returning the sculpture to St. Patrick’s was to gain permission from the Elroy Area Historical Society to relocate it from the museum. Chuck said, “There was no reservation from the historical society in returning the sculpture to St. Patrick’s. The only thing they requested from us was a letter from the Parish Council saying that we would return the inlay back to the church.”
Now that Chuck had permission from the historical society, another challenge arose. The idea was to replace the Last Supper as an inlay in the current altar, just as it was in the original altar. However, the current altar’s design did not allow the sculpture to fit in. That is when Chuck contacted his long-time friend and St. Patrick parishioner, Robert “Bob” Schroeder.
As a carpenter, Bob quickly realized that there was no way the current altar could be modified to accommodate the Last Supper inlay. So, he and Chuck decided to build a new altar. In the meantime, Bob and Chuck transported the sculpture to Bob’s shop, where he measured it and built a shipping container to send it to T.H. Stemper Company to have it repaired and repainted. Time had taken its toll on the plaster. Bob recalled that the sculpture’s painting and structure were significantly damaged when they received it from the historical society. Chuck knew where to go for restoration work because he and his wife, Glenda, paid to have other statues in the church repaired and repainted.
Carpentry and Commitment
Bob began building a new altar that could incorporate the Last Supper sculpture. Bob said, “I took measurements of the sculpture and went to my brother Tim’s house to draw up plans for constructing the altar. Tim does computer-aided design (CAD) work. Being a carpenter, I am good at visualizing how things will look while building and when complete. I knew the altar could not be sloped and had to be rectangular. We wanted to ensure it had a certain amount of overhang on the top and space at the bottom. We basically knocked the design plans out in one night. When we were finished, we had a conceptual view of what the altar was actually going to look like. We completed the design before Christmas 2021.”
Chuck and Bob brought the plans to the Parish Council and gained its approval. With a target completion date of Easter 2022, Chuck and Bob got to work.
Bob started working on the altar at the beginning of 2022. Beauty and quality were at the forefront of his mind. “The entire altar is made from three-quarter inch walnut. Every piece is mitered together. There were no squaring-off cuts. We did not want the raw edge to show anywhere, nor did we want to do any veneering. We wanted to be sure that only the walnut was visible around the entire altar.”
Bob and Chuck spent two months constructing the new altar. Their thorough planning and CAD work paid off as the process became smooth as time passed. Bob remembers that the most challenging aspect of the altar project was matching the altar’s color to the other wooden objects in the sanctuary. Like many of us who need a bit of insight to complete a renovation project, Bob found the answer by going to YouTube. “One night, I went on the internet and typed in the YouTube search bar: ‘how to stain walnut plywood,’ and, lo and behold, the video I watched showed exactly the color we wanted. We needed to stain the plywood with orange wood dye and then, once it was dry, apply a coat of amber shellac. It was not something we would have ever thought of on our own. Once done, we applied three coats of polyurethane to protect everything.”
Sixty years after it was removed from St. Patrick, and thanks to the efforts of the Elroy Area Historical Society, St. Patrick Parish Council, Father John Ofori-Domah, Bob and Tim Schroeder and Chuck and Glenda Huschka, the original Last Supper inlay was restored and returned to the sanctuary in time for Easter Mass.
Story and Photography by Robert Rogers
Published in the September/October 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine