The sacristan: My work is my prayer

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Cleta Renyer has been a sacristan at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Seneca for nearly 13 years. She has a laundry list of things that need to be done — just don’t tell her the church is too warm or too cold.

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

SENECA — When Cleta Renyer moved here nearly 13 years ago, she was asked if she’d like to be the volunteer sacristan at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish by then-pastor Father Roderick Giller, OSB.

Renyer had been the sacristan at her previous parish — but she didn’t want the job.

“I said, ‘Father, you have a big parish. You don’t need me. You’ve got people here,’” said Renyer.

“For three Sundays in a row, the bulletin said: ‘We need a sacristan,’” recalled Renyer.

“I told myself: If it’s in the bulletin next week, I’ll be the sacristan,” she said.

“It was.”

And sacristan she became.

One of the most important virtues of a good sacristan is consistency. Since the Mass is celebrated every day, the sacristan has to fulfill his or her responsibilities come rain or shine.

The ministry of the sacristan is simply this: to make sure the sacred space is ready for Mass and that the priest has everything he needs.

In most aspects, the ministry is rather mundane.

Renyer orders the hosts and the wine. She orders oil and wicks for the candles and makes sure they’re ready. She makes sure the altar cloths and purificators are available, and she washes the servers’ albs. She makes sure the area around the altar is clean.

Renyer’s responsibilities include daily Mass, Saturday evening Mass and the early 7 a.m. Sunday Mass. She also serves as sacristan for weddings and funerals.

Of all the things she’s responsible for, there’s one thing she’s not: the thermostat.

“The people in the parish think I should turn the air conditioning up or down, but I can’t order Father to do that,” said Renyer with a chuckle.

And don’t get her started on the Communion wine used. The sacristan has no say and just orders the priest’s preference.

By no means, however, is being a sacristan a “Lone Ranger” ministry.

Two other women, Marian Rottinghaus and Sue Haug, are sacristans for the 9 and 11 a.m. Sunday Masses. They’re also her “backups” if Renyer is unable to carry out the duties for her assigned Masses.

Additionally, Rottinghaus is the parish secretary. She’s the expert at getting wine stains out of altar cloths and purificators. Haug takes care of the eucharistic adoration chapel, among other things.

What’s the secret to being a successful sacristan? Follow your pastor’s lead, said Renyer.

“I’ve worked under four or five different priests, and every one has a different thing that they really want done. And you do what they want you to do and the way they want it done,” said Renyer.

There have been changes since she first started.

For one thing, there are the altar cloths. They used to be linen, and ironing them to keep them wrinkle free was a hard task. The same was true for the servers’ albs.

Now, these items are made of more user-friendly, wrinkle- resistant synthetic fibers.

Another change is the candles. They used to be the traditional wax candles, but now they are actually hollow and filled with lamp oil. The old wax candles would drip, and cleaning up the wax was a chore.

Here’s a tip: How do you get accumulated wax off of metal candlesticks? Heat them in the oven on the lowest setting possible. Leave a paper towel under them to catch the melted wax.

As is so often the case with parish volunteers, Renyer considers herself a “Martha,” not a “Mary.”

“This is my prayer, working at the church,” she said.

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