The tabernacle below the crucifix on the old high altar is the one used at Mass most of the time, but the repository on the Blessed Mother altar has a special significance.
What is a tabernacle and why is the one on the Mary altar important?
A tabernacle is a “little house” of God. The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art reports that the first tabernacle of the Old Testament was a “portable shrine to contain the Ark of the Covenant,” with the original stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments; while in churches today, “In Christian usage a tabernacle is a receptacle for the Blessed Sacrament.”
The tabernacle on our Mary altar has an added layer of symbolism, as a reminder that Mary, when she was pregnant, became a human “tabernacle” for Christ. Philip Kosloski of Aleteia notes that “This idea of Mary being the new “ark” or “tabernacle” of God is a long tradition. For example, the ancient Akathist hymn of the 6th century reads, “Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! holy beyond all holy ones. Hail! ark gilded by the Holy Ghost. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.”
Our Mary altar tabernacle is labeled “Mater Salvatoris” (Mother of the Savior) and the door is embellished with roses. The University of Dayton’s John Stokes Jr. archives provides insight into the meaning of the decorations: “the rose, queen of flowers, is an ancient and universal symbol of the Incarnation, of Mary, of her love of God, and of her spiritual beauty and fragrance, pleasing to God.” The roses on our tabernacle are “a wild rose typical of those known to the Christians of the Middle Ages and called by them, Mary’s Rose. It is also the rose adopted as the model for the central rose windows of the medieval cathedrals.” Curiously, our patron Saint Francis de Sales had a slightly different idea of the symbolism, referring to Christ as Mary’s rose: “that Divine flower, our Lord, who came forth from the Blessed Virgin, as it had been foretold by Isaias that a flower should rise out of the root of Jesse.” The symbol of the rose on our tabernacle thus references both Mary encompassing the Christ child, and Christ contained within
Spiritually, Mary’s significance as a tabernacle in our church is not confined to her shrine: it’s part of the fabric of our building. One of the inscriptions, threaded around the sanctuary walls, reads “I have loved, O Lord, the beauty of thy house; and the place where thy glory dwelleth” (26th Psalm), with the Mary monogram placed above the words “the beauty of thy house” — perhaps as an acknowledgement that Mary is the “house” of Christ! It goes further: above the front door of our church is an image of Mary seated on a throne, with angels holding a garland above her head — a traditional entryway theme of “The Coronation, or Triumph, of the Virgin — with the Virgin being symbolic of the Church.” The verse inscribed around the image (2 Chronicles 7:15) is the Word of God at the dedication of the First Temple of Jerusalem, which contained the tabernacle for the Ark of the Covenant. So our front door welcomes us to Mother Church, which contains the precious tabernacle of Christ’s presence. Was the heavy symbolism accidental or intentional? We do know that Reverend Crane, who commissioned our church, had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother, and chose to lay the cornerstone on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in 1907.
Incidentally, the Mary altar and tabernacle have a surprising historical importance to our parish, in addition to the religious symbolism. The altar donor was Eleanor Donnelly, the female “poet laureate of the American Catholic Church,” a powerful feminine presence of the era. Descendants of architect Henry Dagit, also relate a family tale that one of Henry’s daughters was sculptor Adolfo de Nesti’s model for the statue of Mary, providing a link back to the long-ago designers and builders of our church.