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I remember being about nine or ten before I could go with my mother to help with her altar guild duties at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Orlando, FL. I had asked, or rather begged, so many times, always receiving the same answer: “When you are older.” One Saturday morning as mom headed out the door, I asked if I could come along, fully expecting the same answer. To my surprise, mom said “Sure, but remember to behave and do exactly as you are asked without a peep!”

That first time in the sacristy was so scary. I had been allowed in before, but only to quickly travel through to my next destination. It was magical to see how all the duties were completed with such care and attention to detail and with great reverence. I did my best to model the other ladies as I did small tasks, like changing the hymn numerals on the display boards, dusting the pews, and eventually, at my favorite time of year, Christmas, helping with the nativity scene and greenery. After that first wonderful Saturday, I served every chance I could and was the unofficial youngest member of the team — even getting a pin when I headed to college.

That special time and the wonderfully faithful women I had met stayed with me during my many years away from church. Thirty years later, a dear friend invited me to an evening service at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke’s. The beauty of God’s church reminded me of my altar guild service as a young woman. At first I tried other forms of service — being a greeter, serving on a committee — but my heart, and God’s, kept calling me to altar guild. I felt unqualified compared to the many more experienced ladies, but after one 6 p.m. service I noticed the deacon cleaning up and thought, “I can certainly do that and not embarrass myself, and free her to do other things.” I have loved every single minute of my service and have felt God’s presence so many times in our sacristy and through my interactions with the amazing women with whom I serve. Even though my mom passed away in 2003, I feel a special closeness with her as I serve and I am incredibly thankful she finally allowed me to come with her that first Saturday morning.

Several months ago Ellie van Anda joined our ranks and we began our friendship serving together every fourth weekend. Ellie was a little shy at first but from the stories she shared I could see right away she had a quiet strength, much courage and, most importantly, great faith in God. She had not been raised Episcopalian but had attended St. Peter’s in Lake Mary, FL, for a time as a child and had very fond memories of our faith and traditions. She was eager to learn more, particularly how altar guild was part of those beloved traditions. She quickly learned and is a valued member of our altar guild family. 

One day I asked Ellie how she came to join altar guild. She said as a child her family had attended various denominations of churches and her father always stressed the importance of service in some way — being a chalice bearer had been his way. Remembering her time at St. Peter’s with great fondness, Ellie began attending the church and was even married there. Remembering her father, she wanted to find her own way to serve. After getting her bearings as a new member of St. Luke’s, she and her husband were asked to be chalice bearers. Not long after, Ellie attended a ministry fair and met Kathy Tindal one of our altar guild directresses. Kathy explained that we quietly serve by preparing for services and cleaning up afterwards, which immediately connected with a number of Ellie’s true joys. Altar guild tapped into her love of the Episcopal traditions and her love of cleaning, it delivered moments of peacefulness from the pressures of raising a two-year-old, and it reminded her of her father’s example of serving the Lord. 

Most of the women and men I have had the great pleasure of serving with and getting to know through various altar guild functions had some contact with an altar guild member in their past, whether family member or friend. Few just decide out of the blue to join because it’s not something many parishioners understand. Getting the word out in different ways like ministry fairs or sharing your story for serving on altar guild can help build the ranks of guilds across the diocese.

Kimble Palmer with assistance from Ellie van Anda, Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando, FL Altar Guild (Diocese of Central Florida)

[Thanks to Judy Henderson, DAG directress and Newsletter editor, for permission to adapt and reprint this article from their November 2018 issue.] 

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