The Domestic Church in Quarantine Makes Good Use of Home Altars

Prayerful spaces aid Catholic families at this time.

Families across the country decorate dedicated spaces in their homes to gather their domestic churches for prayer, including the Andersons in North Carolina (shown above).
Families across the country decorate dedicated spaces in their homes to gather their domestic churches for prayer, including the Andersons in North Carolina (shown above). (photo: Courtesy of the families)

With countless people deprived of attending Mass in churches or simply making a visit to pray, as churches in some areas are locked, how can a family or person bring “church” into the home?

During a mid-April interview with the French magazine Valeurs actuelles, Cardinal Robert Sarah pointed out an answer, “What if, quite simply, in this silence, this solitude, this confinement, we dared to pray? If we dare to turn our family and our home into a domestic church?”

No matter the size, home chapels and altars can remind members of the domestic church to stop to pray and meditate. Such prayer spaces can be placed in a corner of a room or on a specific table or mantle or in an alcove — the varieties are many.

In North Carolina, when Rob and Susan Anderson learned public Masses were canceled, they decided to set up a home altar. On it they placed a St. Benedict Crucifix, a picture of the Two Hearts, a rosary and a Sacred Heart of Jesus prayer card.

“I genuflect and pray the Sacred Heart prayer once a day,” Susan said. “Also, this spot is in the front entry way and on the way to our kitchen. It’s a visible sign of faith and reflection that God is always with us.”

She said that “keeping vigil and pursuing God in this tangible way of creating home altars is so important” and knows that Jesus, Our Lady and St. Joseph are close to her and her family at this time.

The Andersons are not alone. Families across the country are dedicating home altars or chapels, which are reaping many spiritual benefits.

In Columbus, Ohio, Ryan and MaryBeth Eberhard and their eight children, who range in age from 8 to 18, attend Mass via livestreaming. The children bring down a picture or statues of a particular saint they sought the intercession of that particular week. There are statues of the Annunciation (one son, Gabriel, received it at his baptism), Our Lady, St. Joseph, relics of two saints and candles. Every Sunday daughter Sarah brings out the vase of white roses that she dried after her father gave them to her for her first reconciliation this year.

This preparation, along with printing the readings so the children can follow along, “helps them enter into the Mass,” MaryBeth said. After their first virtual Mass on the TV, one teenager told her, “Thanks, Mom, for making this as normal as it could be.”

The Eberhards attend daily televised Mass. “If we don’t make an 8:30 Mass, there is the EWTN one later,” MaryBeth noted, mentioning other livestream options for prayer, such as the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet.

In this domestic chapel setting, she explained that when praying in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament livestreamed in the living room, they light a candle. “We set up a little sacred space there, and the dynamic changes in that space,” she said. “Those places and spaces throughout the home can set the stage for time with the Lord. Setting these spaces for an encounter with the Lord is really important.”

This follows what Cardinal Sarah also emphasized during his interview. “Christians, deprived of the Eucharist, realize how much Communion was a grace for them. I encourage them to practice adoration from home, for there is no Christian life without sacramental life. In the midst of our towns and villages, the Lord remains present.”

In Central Florida, Jason and Rachel Bulman converted a little room off the garage into a chapel, outfitting it with a crucifix, artwork of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, and different relics. They’re adding a wall mural of roses and vines around the Blessed Mother image and lilies and vines around the St. Joseph image; the mural will highlight those roses in gold where Jesus is shown on the cross. Though the room is little, “we had private Masses for our family and friends,” Rachel said. And this time of isolation from the virus has increased the use of their home chapel for their domestic church, which includes their four children, ages 2 to 9. She explained, “My husband and I would use it before for our own private prayer. From using it once a month as a family, now it’s become a space where we can pray together more as a family. We use it as a family two to three times a week.” The Bulmans also livestream the Mass and the Rosary. The chapel “quickly became an extension of who we are,” Rachel said, aiding their prayer.

In Colorado, Michael and Leslea Wahl created a home altar for themselves and their three children “below the TV so that when we watch church, it feels more holy,” Leslea said. On it they place “a crucifix, photos of Jesus and Mary, candles and holy water.” (Blessed salt is another sacramental that families can add.)

In Oklahoma, John and Stephanie Stovall began creating their home altar a few years ago. After “many a lost or broken sacred item,” said Stephanie — they have five boys aged 3 to 10 — they began placing their most cherished items on top of the living room book shelf.

“Before we realized, we had made our own scared space within our most used room,” Stephanie explained. On the altar shelf are third-class relics of Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux, John Paul II, Francis de Sales, Blessed Stanley Rother and Our Lady of Guadalupe. As Stephanie said, “We have family prayer every night in this room, and the boys can just look up and know they are physically praying with great saints.” She added, “Having these holy reminders so visible throughout the day has been a blessing to us, both for family and personal prayer. One look up to that shelf [altar], and I am immediately reminded about the end which we are striving for — heaven.”

In Wichita, Kansas, Ron and Charisse Tierney and their four girls and three boys, age 18 months to 15, have an altar in their dining room that they keep decorated according to the liturgical season; their home altar includes an image of Divine Mercy and a lily plant for Eastertime. “The stained-glass window is from a house we used to live in that was built by a retired priest,” Charisse said. “The window is from the room he used as his study/prayer room. We call it our ‘Holy Spirit window.’ It is a treasured part of our altar.” Around the colorful windows are images of Our Lady of Fatima and several saints.

In this holy space, they watch the Mass livestreamed and pray the Rosary. “We also have a ‘children’s altar’ in our home,” Charisse said. This low table has hands-on materials for the youngest children to explore according to the liturgical season. Little Zelie puts her pictures of Jesus on it.

In Campinas, Brazil, Luciano and Flávia Ghelardi have three children, 14 to 17, and another in heaven. “We have a special place in our house where we put this home shrine, with images of Our Lady of Schoenstatt, a cross, some saints (St. Michael and St. Joseph), candles and more,” Flávia emailed the Register, explained that they instituted this home altar as members of the Schoenstatt movement when they married nearly 22 years ago.

“We ask Our Lady to establish in our home [her intercession] and take care of all family members,” she said. Flávia elaborated, “This is where we have our night prayers every day as a family and where we come to pray alone, too. It is the ‘heart’ of our home. After the quarantine started and the churches were closed, we realized how important it was to have a home shrine [altar]. During Holy Week we had some special celebrations there, increased our prayer time, and it really felt as a domestic church.”

The Eberhards have many such places to foster prayer in their home.

On one home altar, the family keeps relics and prayer cards. “In our den I have the icons of every patron saint for every family member. This is my prayer space,” MaryBeth said. The other members “have their own places, giving them those opportunities.” One daughter draws some of the holy images she sees and puts them with her Bible on her desk.

Sister Margaret Kerry of the Daughters of St. Paul in Charleston, South Carolina, suggested, “Open a Bible on your home altar. Jesus is present in his word. Have a Bible enthronement ceremony.”

The Bulmans also have many sacred items around their house, such as holy pictures and icons, along with “another room in our home for family prayer,” Rachel said.

“Our children know this is a sacred space for prayer [along with the chapel]. It’s important that your children know this is where they can come to pray and find peace.”

Rachel Bulman said her children are learning how to sing great hymns as well as learning about the liturgical calendar. “With all the distractions taken away,” she said, “it’s really a beautiful time for us to recapture that the family is the first catechist.”

Such places of prayer can overflow to outdoor spaces.

Because the Eberhards’ son Joseph appreciates nature, “We gave him our St. Joseph and Mary Garden to do,” MaryBeth said.

“He’s out there planting, and we talk about the weeds and how therapeutic weeding is,” and, likewise, she added, “about our sins: how we have to get to the bottom [of them], not just pluck off the tops. We should always be dialoguing in our family about the faith.”

Joseph Pronechen is a

Register staff writer.