ASK FATHER: Waxed linen altar cloths

In honor of the appointment of Card. Sarah to the Congregation for Divine Worship, we tackle an important liturgical issue.

Traditionally our Roman altars should have three linen altar cloths.  One of them should properly be infused with wax, to make it relatively waterproof.  This is sometimes called a “cere cloth”.  It is also known as a “chrismale” because it is placed on the altar during its consecration rite after the mensa has been anointed with chrism.

A reader wants to find one.

I was hoping you could inquire after your readers as to where one might procure a proper waxed linen cere cloth?  My children’s school has an altar that is sorely in need of proper altar cloths. I would like to procure them for the school, but am unable to find a supplier of them.  I was hoping you or your readers might be aware of one.

Maybe you can help.

If I recall correctly, someone involved with the Institute of Christ the King knows someone who makes these cloths.  This thought stems from when I attended the consecration of Old St. Patrick’s in downtown Kansas City: when they clothed the altar for the first time, they used a “cere cloth” which looked like the real thing.  I have a recollection of asking about it and hearing that someone made it.

I suppose that, in a pinch, one might cut to shape a table pad if it were thin enough.  There are also a certain kind of sheet used in hospitals that is moisture proof.

The cere cloth has wax on only one side.  The production of such a cloth involves dipping the linen in melted wax and then ironing it between two other sheets.  I think that removes the top layer of wax.

So… have at!

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27 Responses to ASK FATHER: Waxed linen altar cloths

  1. VexillaRegis says:

    I wouldn’t recommend hostpital sheets, the water proof layer is made of plastic. Maybe one could contact a manufacturer of (British) wax coats and see if they can provide you with some meters of cloth. I think I’ve seen white wax coats too, not just green and brown.

  2. Father what about this idea? Some camping equipment stores (e.g. Bushsmarts?) sell wax separate that one can use to melt, and then “wax” their cotton items. They stress this for knapsacks or items you carry things in to make them water proof. What about using a regular altar cloth, getting a few tins of that wax, melting it, and just coating the one side with wax as an alternative?

  3. MrsMacD says:

    Beeswax sheets are relatively common at craft stores http://www.wicksandwax.com/waxsheets.htm . Someone could probably put a linen altar cloth on top of six or so beeswax sheets (on top of some canvas or some other thick hearty material) and iron to coat the linen with wax.

  4. sirlouis says:

    A really dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist will insist that the wax be from the stumps of blessed candles.
    — If a table pad is legit, then another possibility is a table cover. The good ones are a 6 mil vinyl sheet with a flannel backing, thin enough so that they don’t add inconvenient bulk. They come in white, can easily be cut to size, only cost about twenty bucks or so, and will last a long time.

  5. iudicame says:

    Use a nice piece of plastic sheeting. If it ever wears out then replace for $1. Woven stuff that is waxed WILL bleed.

    m

  6. Oneros says:

    The cere-cloth is actually a FOURTH cloth in addition to the 3 layers on top. I’m also not sure it only has to be waxed on one side. I’ve never heard the tradition that it be made of blessed candle stumps, merely that melting candle stumps is a convenient way to procure the wax.

    This is what Catholic Encyclopedia says on the matter, from the article on altar cloths:

    “Besides the three altar-cloths there is another linen cloth, waxed on one side, which is called the chrismale (cere-cloth), and with which the table of the consecrated altar (even if part of it be made of bricks or other material, and does not form a part of the consecrated altar) should be completely covered (Caerem. Episc., De altaris consecratione). It must be of the exact size of the table of the altar, and it is placed under the linen cloths, the waxed side being turned towards the table. Its purpose is not only to prevent the altar-cloths from being stained by the oil used at the consecration, but also to keep the cloths dry. Hence it is advisable to have such a wax cloth on all altars in churches which may be, accessible to dampness. According to the rubrics, this cloth is removed once a year, that is, during the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday; but it may be changed as often as the altar is washed. The cere-cloth is not blessed. It cannot take the place of one of the three rubrical linen cloths. To procure cere-cloths, melt the remnants of wax candles in a small vessel. When the wax is in a boiling condition, skim off the impurities that remain from the soiled stumps of candles. Dip into this wax the linen intended for the cere-cloth, and when well saturated hang it on a clothes-line, allowing the surplus wax to drop off. When the wax cloth has hardened place it between two unwaxed sheets of linen of like dimensions. Iron thoroughly with a well heated flat iron, thus securing three wax cloths. The table on which the cloths are ironed should be covered with an old cloth or thick paper to receive the superfluous wax when melted by the iron. It should be remembered that unwashed linen when dipped in wax shrinks considerably, hence before the cloths are waxed they should be much larger than the size of the altar for which they are intended.”

    To me, this section makes clear that the cere-cloth is a fourth cloth. And while earlier on it mentions “waxed on one side,” the later description of how to procure cere-cloths implies that waxing a cloth and then ironing it between two others will create three cere-cloths (two waxed on one side, and one waxed on both), so I assume that either one-side waxed or tw0-side waxed is okay; the article does not imply that the third cloth (the original one pressed in the center) is discarded, it implies that the process “secures three cloths.”

    Here is a blogpost about one being made from scratch:

    http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com/2010/03/reviving-rather-messy-handicraft.html

  7. Oneros says:

    The cere-cloth is actually a FOURTH cloth in addition to the 3 layers on top. I’m also not sure it only has to be waxed on one side. I’ve never heard the tradition that it be made of blessed candle stumps, merely that melting candle stumps is a convenient way to procure the wax.

    This is what Catholic Encyclopedia says on the matter, from the article on altar cloths:

    “Besides the three altar-cloths there is another linen cloth, waxed on one side, which is called the chrismale (cere-cloth), and with which the table of the consecrated altar (even if part of it be made of bricks or other material, and does not form a part of the consecrated altar) should be completely covered (Caerem. Episc., De altaris consecratione). It must be of the exact size of the table of the altar, and it is placed under the linen cloths, the waxed side being turned towards the table. Its purpose is not only to prevent the altar-cloths from being stained by the oil used at the consecration, but also to keep the cloths dry. Hence it is advisable to have such a wax cloth on all altars in churches which may be, accessible to dampness. According to the rubrics, this cloth is removed once a year, that is, during the stripping of the altars on Maundy Thursday; but it may be changed as often as the altar is washed. The cere-cloth is not blessed. It cannot take the place of one of the three rubrical linen cloths. To procure cere-cloths, melt the remnants of wax candles in a small vessel. When the wax is in a boiling condition, skim off the impurities that remain from the soiled stumps of candles. Dip into this wax the linen intended for the cere-cloth, and when well saturated hang it on a clothes-line, allowing the surplus wax to drop off. When the wax cloth has hardened place it between two unwaxed sheets of linen of like dimensions. Iron thoroughly with a well heated flat iron, thus securing three wax cloths. The table on which the cloths are ironed should be covered with an old cloth or thick paper to receive the superfluous wax when melted by the iron. It should be remembered that unwashed linen when dipped in wax shrinks considerably, hence before the cloths are waxed they should be much larger than the size of the altar for which they are intended.”

    To me, this section makes clear that the cere-cloth is a fourth cloth. And while earlier on it mentions “waxed on one side,” the later description of how to procure cere-cloths implies that waxing a cloth and then ironing it between two others will create three cere-cloths (two waxed on one side, and one waxed on both), so I assume that either one-side waxed or tw0-side waxed is okay; the article does not imply that the third cloth (the original one pressed in the center) is discarded, it implies that the process “secures three cloths.”

    Here is a blogpost about one being made from scratch:

    http://renegadetrad.blogspot.com/2010/03/reviving-rather-messy-handicraft.html

  8. Oneros says:

    (Whoops. Don’t know why it posted twice).

    I should also add from experience that the question of being waxed on one side or both is rather moot in practice, as unless some sort of industrial spray-on process is used…applying wax onto a cloth by melting/ironing WILL result in the beeswax soaking into the cloth entirely. There will be no question of this or that side, it gets wet like water and soaks straight through. Maybe thicker on one side than the other, but it’s not as if it stays on the surface, it saturates.

  9. churchlady says:

    I’ve been interested in this topic for quite some time, but have questions. Is a cere-cloth just for new altars? If not, how often would it need to be changed? For those who have a real wax cere-cloth, how do you refresh your altar linens? Or do you simply change them often? In trying to find information about a cere-cloth, I have mostly found that parishes use some other form of a waterproof pad. That is what we have on our altar now.

  10. churchlady says:

    Clarification on my first question – I’m talking about an actual wax cere-cloth, is that just for new altars and then a substitute waterproof cloth used?

  11. Uxixu says:

    Fortescue in Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described in 1920 indicates it doesn’t count as the one of the three cloths and that the cere-cloth is required by the Pontifical immediately after the consecration of the altar. The latest edition by Dom Alcuin Reid just indicates that no law requires it to be a permanent fixture of the altar.

  12. TheAcolyte says:

    It is not actually true that one of the altar cloths should be a cere-cloth, which in fact was a fourth cloth used immediately after the altar’s consecration (and only for a limited time after as in most cases, it was not intended as a permanent cloth).

    It is true though that a cere-cloth was recommended for places that had high humidity to prevent the upper cloths from becoming soak via condensation on a stone altar mensa. Of course, such advice was being given in the days before fans and AC.

    This can be verified within all of the books that speak of the legislation on altar cloths, chief amongst these is “The Liturgical Altar” of Geoffrey Webb: http://romanitaspress.com/the_liturgical_altar.htm. Other authors include J.B. O’Connell, Peter Anson, Harold Collins et al. Of course, the Caeremoniale Episcoporum and Missale Romanum are also authorities including the Sacred Congregation of Rites.

    Hope this helps to clarify the matter.

  13. Papabile says:

    TheAcolyte, the chapel does not have air conditioning or fans.

    In this case, it makes perfect sense, and would be useful.

    You rightly point out that it was ordinarily used temporarily. However, in some European countries (e.g. Spain), it was de riguer, and it was necessarily so south of the Mason Dixon line until around the late 60’s when everything went South and air conditioning became available.

    But it was not prohibited to keep it there to prevent the altar from being stained. The SCR specifically endorsed this in the past.

  14. Latin Mass Type says:

    This is interesting!

    We only have two cloths on each of our altars. The old high altar has one that feels like linen and has a cutout for the tabernacle that’s underneath a larger one that hangs to the floor on the sides. It was not used for Mass for years and so rarely changed.

    The table altar has whatever is put on it by whoever is changing the linens. At one point it was just a colored cloth until one priest advised that there should be a white cloth on top. So there is now. There has also been a small piece of linen covering the altar stone on the table altar for as long as I have been at this church.

    The high altar (thanks be to God) is now occasionally used for an EF Mass and the cloth needs cleaning–candle wax drips and (unconsecrated) wine spots. But it appears that we do not have a spare cloth!

    I would be happy to know what is proper and try to put things in order.

  15. Uxixu says:

    Fortescue also indicated that one cloth could be doubled over to count as the two lower cloths, so more of a layering requirement than individual articles, it would appear. One of the few places he doesn’t give a citation to a ruling of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, though so might be speaking to local customs in England of the time than specification decree or legislation.

  16. Mojoron says:

    I used to work at Owens-Illinois back in the 60’s prior to my enlistment. I used to operate a machine that waxed one side of a box which would make it water proof. They use them to store wet items while shipping or manufacturing, primarily fish or meat. If you have a box making plant in town you might ask them if you could experiment with their machine and your cloths. Just a thought.

  17. mysticalrose says:

    Sounds like a Barbour coat. Maybe they have surplus waxed fabric?

  18. churchlady says:

    Latin Mass Type – What I’ve read is that the altars need to have 3 cloths on them. The first two need to cover the full mensa – this can be one cloth folded in half. The other (top), while covering the full mensa, needs to come to the floor on the sides of the altar. They should be made of linen. The altar cloths should be kept clean, so they should definitely be changed if spot cleaning cannot be done. A couple of resources I’ve used besides those mentioned above are the SanctaMissa.org site and Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year by Msgr. Peter J. Elliott

  19. I’ve also been looking for a cerecloth. The only place I know that potentially sells them is Granda. I haven’t contacted them recently, however, I saw it as an item that can be purchased in an older version of their catalog.

  20. Reginald Pole says:

    If, once the cerecloth has been coated with wax, you iron it on top of newspaper paper, the paper will soak up the excess wax and cut down on the mess considerably. You want to use paper without the newsprint otherwise you might stain the cloth. You can usually get a couple of scrape yards from you local paper.

  21. Muv says:

    This waxing process sounds fascinating. Rather than mess around with irons, has anyone seen this method? Julian Barkin was suggesting that you could get wax for waterproofing at camping shops. This website (not my usual territory) makes it all look very easy:-

    http://www.artofmanliness.com/2014/06/03/how-to-wax-your-own-clothing-and-gear/

    Furthermore, the wax he uses has no petroleum or synthetic content.

  22. Urget_nos says:

    From: Wuest, “Matters Liturgical”1956 edition
    #136. The Chrismale. The Chrismale, called also the cere-cloth, is a linen cloth which is waxed underneath and spread on the table of a fixed altar after its consecration; a piece of oil-cloth may not be used as a substitute, since the cloth used must be of linen and waxed (P.R.E.: II, N.66 AD 2 AD41). It is not prescribed that the chrismale should be blessed, nor is it customary to bless it.
    b) The chrismale cannot be counted as one of the three linen cloths required on the altar for the celebration of Mass (S.L. III, QU. 48).
    c) The chrismale need not remain on the altar indefinitely or be replaced, unless this is prescribed by particular law; the purpose of the chrismale is purely practical and temporary, to keep, namely, the altar cloths from being stained while the table is still moist with sacred oils used in the consecration (P.R.E.: II, P. 161 and 89).
    d) The chrismale is not prescribed by any general law to be placed over a sacred stone after its consecration.

  23. Suburbanbanshee says:

    A wooden altar kept with a beeswax-infused cloth on it would probably shine like anything!

  24. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If you don’t have a humidity problem, though, you’d want to watch out for an increased risk of fire. Candle onto linen probably won’t burn too fast to put out, but candle onto waxed linen would be like a firelighter for camping. Maybe cerecloths not in use should be stored somewhere like a fireproof metal box?

  25. kelleyb says:

    After reading the response taken from the Catholic encyclopedia, I want to caution readers attempting this at home. Be Extremely Cautious !! Wax has a low flash point. Always use a water bath. Never place the container directly on a burner. This sounds like an interesting project for the industrious . Just research the proper techniques to be safe.

  26. MacBride says:

    I sent a link of this article to my friend Elizabeth Morgan of Churchlinens.com. She wrote a book on liturgical linens and is very knowledgeable about linen and its history. This is her reply:

    “The comments give by Oneros are on the right track. I agree that the cere cloth is not one of the traditional 3 linens used by the Roman Catholic Church. (We Episcopalians don’t utilize that tradition.)

    It’s my information that cere cloths were invented to solve a practical problem. This problem, long solved and forgotten, has left cere cloths in a mystery that the Church can’t explain.

    Cere cloths were needed in the days before we kept our churches heated all week long – before central heating. Before this, the parish Sexton would fire up the woodstove on Saturday so the church would be warm for Sunday services. The woodstove was allowed to go out after Sunday services and the church was unheated for the rest of the week.

    If the altar was made of stone or marble, 36 hours of heat would not be enough to warm the altar to the temperature of the air. The warmth of the air in the church caused condensation on the cold stone altar – more to the point – caused condensation to form on the stone altar underneath the fair linens. When the church became cold again, the condensation did not evaporate well and caused the linens to mildew – especially if there was a stack of three linens.

    Paraffin wax is still readily available in boxes in the canning department of any hardware store. While very few people use it any more, this wax was commonly used to seal homemade jellys and jams. When sacristans (women) became aware that condensation was causing their fair linens to mildew, they turned to their jelly jar cabinet and made waxed linens – which the clergy named ‘cere cloths’.

    The purpose of the waxed cere cloth was to confine the condensation below the waxed cere cloth – preventing dampening – and mildew – of the fair linens.

    Cere cloths were necessary only prior to central heating that was kept on throughout the week. As long as stone altars are kept warm enough to preclude condensation, there is no need for a cere cloth. Cere cloths are not necessary on wooden altars.

    There is also the issue of cleanliness. Wax is sticky and gathers soil. Old cere cloths become quite dirty and do not belong on altars. I’m sure that cere cloths used to be replaced regularly – probably each year when the altar was stripped. No sacristan would allow a dirty waxed cloth to remain on the altar.

    There is an extant cere cloth in place on our Cathedral high altar – and, it’s very grubby! I wonder when central heating was installed in our Cathedral? I cannot imagine trying to heat that building with wood – or coal!”

  27. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I consulted my mom, whose aunt was a nun who acted as sacristan at her girl’s school’s chapel. (Mom was always drafted to help set up, along with a couple other girls.)

    They used a cerecloth as the bottom layer under the three linens, as a precaution against wine spillage hurting the finish on the wooden altar. The altar only was set up on the days they had Mass. The cerecloth was kept in a separate drawer in the sacristy, apart from all other altar linens. (The sacristy had cabinets with about a zillion long drawers for every color and type of altar linen.) The cerecloth was disposed of after some amount of service and replaced with a new one, although she doesn’t remember how old it was; and my mom was under the impression that her aunt took care of the task of getting the new cerecloth waxed.