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In 2006 Barbara Gent researched and wrote a book spanning 73 years of NAGA’s history. In it she traced the movement of altar guilds before there was such an organized group, when a single Sacristan or the priest took care of the altar, to the altar guild of today.

By the 20th century, Episcopal churches in the United States saw the need for an organization that would see to the care of vestments and linen, see that vessels were polished, and the altar area kept clean. Women were invited to form altar guilds and so it began.

As early as 1890 (in New York City) there was a recognition of the benefit in sharing ideas, information, and talent between altar guilds and thus diocesan altar guilds came into being. These groups met, sewed together, cared for altars in church camps and convention center; and provided supplies — linens, vestments, and vessels — to our Armed Forces chaplains.

As more dioceses formed altar guilds there was a movement to unite them at the national level in the hope of expanding knowledge, communication, spiritual growth, and ministry with a broader base. This ultimately led to the establishment of the National Committee of Diocesan Altar Guilds (NCDAG) which later became the National Association of Diocesan Altar Guilds (NADAG 1961), a group open to all diocesan altar guild presidents. Meeting during the General Convention of 1961 these members manned a booth in the convention hall exhibiting Eucharistic vessels, vestments, hangings, manuals, and pins. At the same time two altar guild workshops were held as part of the ECW Triennial program. Altar guild was still considered “women’s work” and, as such, part of the Episcopal Church Women (ECW).

As NADAG grew, its’ presidents were traveling, attending meetings and actively promoting the altar guild at the diocesan level, while at the same time planning national meetings to coincide with General Convention which would include an Ecclesiastical Art Exhibit (1967) as well as workshops, Eucharists and speakers. The NADAG newsletter also began in 1967 and was packed with information pertinent to altar guilds, from sewing to the new and developing liturgies of the church. In 1976 a large book collection pertaining to altar guild was put together and housed at Nashotah House in Wisconsin. In 1982 an Endowment Fund was set up, the interest of which would be used to support the general operations of NADAG which had been and continues to be self-supporting.

In 1987, to involve more altar guilds at the national level, NADAG expanded membership to include mission, parish, diocese and provincial altar guilds as well as individual members. With new by-laws and a name change to National Altar Guild Association (NAGA), the work of the presidents and their boards continued through the remaining years of the 20th century. A managing editor for a newsletter named Epistle was added to the board. A scholarship program, financially supported by many bishops, was adopted to give members of diverse communities the opportunity to attend the national meeting. 

So how have we progressed in the first 21 years of this century and where and how do we see ourselves going forward? These are the questions Dianne Walters and her NAGA board are pondering. A second volume of NAGA history and the future of altar guild is in its infancy. It will begin with a look at these first 21 years under seven presidents and expand to consider changes in how we and/or others will be the silent servants of the altar. 

We welcome any suggestions for inclusion in this work. The purpose of NAGA is and always has been to unite and support all altar guilds. We are most effective when members take ownership and actively participate, so please consider that this new volume will contain not only history but the dreams and ideas of a new millennium. What are yours? 

Please submit any suggestions for inclusion in this work to Lynn Hendricks at

Lynn Hendricks, Past President, NAGA

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