The Worst May Altar We Ever Had

There is nothing, I’m sure, that could have given our Blessed Mother more joy than this humble act of love.

Blessed Virgin Mary With Flowers
Blessed Virgin Mary With Flowers (photo: Pixabay/CC0)

“Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.”  - St. Maximilian Kolbe

“Miss LaTassa, during recess today I’d like you to work on our May altar.”

That late April day in 1973, Sister Gemma placed into my hands a box filled with plastic flowers, lace scraps, ribbon, two oversized doilies, pearlescent garland, vases and a few old copies of House Beautiful.

Sister had chosen me to decorate Grade 4-1’s May altar because I had a knack for making artsy things out of junk. Unfortunately, Sister Gemma didn’t know that I was as plodding as I was creative (or, according to my plain-speaking mother, “as slow as molasses”). In handing me a heap of hodgepodge and a recess-period directive for a May altar, Sister may as well have given me all the pencil shavings in the wastebasket and told me to spin gold from them before the fourth bell.

There was only one thing I could do: procrastinate.

I had spent most of that recess period leafing through House Beautiful before I suddenly came across a glossy photo of a rose topiary ball. I decided that we had to have a topiary for our May altar.  So what if it required a 12” Styrofoam ball, one square yard of pink silk, a raft of toothpicks and 150 hand-turned fabric roses?

I decided to give Sister Gemma and my classmates a preview of my topiary-embellished vision by drawing on the blackboard a plan for the altar-to-be. So as to be absolutely certain that no one would overlook the key element in the design proposal, I drew the topiary ball in contrasting pink chalk.

The end-of-recess bell rang, and Sister Gemma and my classmates entered the classroom. Sister glanced at me, then at the blackboard, then again at me. She appeared confused. So did my classmates.

“Is that our May altar?” the students asked, pointing at the blackboard drawing.  

“But where does the Mary statue go?”

“If that altar gets erased, can we make a REAL one?”

“How can we crown Mary if she isn’t there?”

“That’s the worst May altar we’ve ever had.”

Sister Gemma settled the class down and then took me aside. It was apparent to Sister that her handpicked altar stylist had chalked herself into a corner.

“Celeste,” she said, her compassion evident in her use of my first name, rather than the usual “Miss LaTassa,” “you are so creative that you should be the head of the May Altar Committee! I know two other girls who would be happy to help you make a lovely altar for Our Lady.” 

Sister’s idea was both diplomatic and brilliant, and the next morning, the May Altar Committee got down to business. Since the rose topiary ball was beyond our means, we made do with a batch of colorful plastic roses that had once decorated the birthday cakes of unknown honorees. And later that afternoon, after Sister’s supply of ribbon, lace and fake pearls had been fully depleted, we carefully placed the Blessed Mother statue on the bedecked May altar.

In the ensuing four weeks, the students of Grade 4-1 diligently kept the altar tidy and its flower arrangements fresh. Every few days, I brought in fragrant blue irises from our Bronx backyard and placed them on the altar.

At first, I wished that those ordinary irises would miraculously turn into petite pink roses studding a silk-wrapped sphere. But then it dawned on me that Mary might actually like my irises better than the artificial roses in House Beautiful. After all, didn’t God Himself make them? And weren’t the irises’ soft ruffled petals the exact shade of Our Lady’s mantle?

I began to take pride in adding my flowers to the mélange that covered the little altar throughout that month of May. All the students of Grade 4-1 were delighted to offer their simple bouquets to Our Lady. There is nothing, I’m sure, that could have given our Blessed Mother more joy.

Not even a perfect rose topiary.

“O Mary, may my heart never cease to love thee, and my tongue never cease to praise thee.” —St. Bonaventure

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