Liturgical Furniture for St Mary’s University – Calgary

The director of campus ministry Nancy Quan contacted me in September 2012 to design new liturgical furniture for their space on campus. A committee who has come together to work on this project gave me a series of principles to imprint in the project:

  • Inclusive and Emphasize the Eucharist as an act of the whole people of God; avoid separation of presider and people
  • Hospitality-open, inviting, welcoming
  • Equal prominence of both ambo and altar (word and sacrament)
  • Wood: raw, natural, warm, untreated; symbolic of human experience/reality
  • Embracing and conveying a message of rootedness
  • Proportional to room
  • Portable but not look mobile
  • Suitable for McGivney Hall (where they currently hold Mass) and future space
  • Same material for both altar and ambo
  • Point of reference that is not distracting, too busy, simple
  • Incorporate First Nation, justice, ecology; and use local materials
  • Unique, artful, memorable, like a sculpture, a work of beauty
  • Reference history of the site [First Nations, French Canadians (Fr. Lacombe, Oblates, Sisters), Irish (John Glenn, Patrick Burns)]

St Mary’s campus backs onto Fishcreek Park, a large provincial nature area with hiking trails, pedestrian and bike pathways. It is not uncommon to see deer and coyotes on the property. The community currently celebrates mass in a multi-use room which they setup and tear down weekly for liturgies. There are plans to build a designated chapel but that is far down the road and the community wanted to have the altar long before they get into their permanent space.

Design Challenges

Not having a permanent worship space that gives you some clues for the liturgical furniture its a challenge by itself. My objective was to design an altar, an ambo and a presidential chair with a strong character. As soon as they are set in the space, the hall becomes a space of worship.

My premises for the design: 

  • Inclusive and Emphasize the Eucharist as an act of the whole people of God; avoid separation of presider and people: I wanted to give to the altar a table character, where the assembly feels that they are around to share the supper of the Lord.
  • Hospitality and welcome: I proposed several arrangement for the space, trying to avoid traditional layouts.
  • Equal prominence of both ambo and altar (word and sacrament): This was a real challenge.  Based on the premise that the ambo is the table of the Word, I decided not to incline the surface for the book, and use the same material and structure for both, but with different proportions, giving each one its own character.
  • Embracing and Conveying a message of rootedness: through the selection of the materials, easy to be recognize by the assembly.
  • Proportional to the space: I focused more on the human scale and this gave me the right proportion to match the space.
  • Portable but not look mobile: This was another challenge.  Normally, I’m not for portable furniture for the Roman Catholic Tradition. For this project I had to find a way to give the altar and the ambo a solid and heavy look to down play its portability.
  • Suitable for the Hall:  I work with some existing patterns that help me in the location of the elements in the different layouts.
  • Point of reference and unique, artful, memorable, like a sculpture, a work of beauty: I wanted to create for them, something unique and with character. Something that they can say, “this is our altar and our ambo, and there is nothing even similar anywhere else.” A way to help build their identity as a community of worship.
  • Incorporate First Nation and use of local materials

Design Strategy

Three themes percolating in my design

  • The Elbow River that crosses the city of Calgary
  • The Canadian Rockies
  • The forests


Altar and Ambo 

Taking in consideration that both, the altar and the ambo, were going to be similar but different in their proportions, I divided both objects into three elements:  base, legs and top. Each one connecting with one of the three themes.

  • Base: The Canadian Rockies. a quadrilateral base, constructed in rusty iron plates (Inside there are 4 wheels to make both the altar and the ambo mobile).
  • Legs: The Forest. Four columns of Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir untreated.
  • Top: The Elbow River. A fusion glass with lines that resemble the stream of the river.

Fusion Glass for the altar and the ambo

  • Company: “Thinkglass” from Quebec
  • Artist: Emmanuel Lebleu
  • Altar” 41” x 41” x 1-1/2” thick
  • Ambo 22” x 22” x 1-1/2” thick
  • Cross 7 7/8” x 9 7/8” x 1/2’ thick

Requirements: We wanted to use the three colours of blue that were offered by the company (Cobalt blue, light blue and aqua) along with a splash of green to symbolize the indigenous grasses and a hint of silver or gold to indicate the divine. We wanted the colouring to be predominantly blue with small accents or hints of the green and silver. We wanted the altar to appear fluid, to represent in abstract the flowing rivers and the mountains, and to be an artistic piece.

The director of campus ministry asked me to have the corners of the altar and ambo rounded to bring some feminine character to the pieces.

Presidential Chair

In my original design I was matching the altar and the ambo.  However, the committee found the chair too rigid.  Then I submitted a more organic design that was accepted. Only in wood, not uniform. My intention was to represent different gifts brought by each member of the community.

Processional Cross

For the cross I wanted a metal stand that can hold a fusion glass painted in the middle with gold. I wanted the background to have the same blues as the altar and the ambo. My idea was rather than having a defined Jesus on the cross to have a more abstract piece that invites the viewer to find Jesus in the colours. I want the colours to be broad strokes rather than thin loops or lines. Finally, a modern corpus was added on top of the glass.


  • The fusion glass was done by “Thinkglass” from Quebec.
  • Artist: Emmanuel Lebleu
  • Altar” 41” x 41” x 1-1/2” thick
  • Ambo 22” x 22” x 1-1/2” thick
  • Cross 7 7/8” x 9 7/8” x 1/2’ thick
  • The base was done in Calgary by steel-workman.
  • The wood is from Alberta.
  • The Altar and ambo were assembled in situ by a local craftsman.
  • The presidential chair was built by a local carpenter.
  • The whole project was completed in April 2013.

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