REVIEW: The ULTIMATE Priest’s Gift – Super Cool Portable Altar

Sometime ago I learned of a carpenter who made a portable altar of wood, rather like a suitcase, with wings that folded out and drawers, and an embedded altar stone. I contacted the carpenter and he said he would make one for me, were I to supply the altar stone.  A priest reader here sent a stone, the perfect size.  The project began.

Today, the altar arrived. Holy cow!

The ULTIMATE priest gift.

Here is the contact information.

St. Joseph’s Apprentice

It came in a fitted vinyl case lined with felt, to protect the wood.



This is what it looks like, closed up.


The wood is African Mahogany and the finish is durable lacquer.  I am instructed that a dry or damp cloth works best, but polish can be used.

The top lid swings up and back and then two “wings” fold out on the sides.

First, tug open the side drawers, which are held in place by magnets so they won’t slide open when moving.  Clever!

Use the drawers as supports for the side “wings” which, even without the drawers as supports, are sturdy.



In a drawer, I found a crucifix which sits atop the central, back lid, or wing.


I pulled out my set of portable altar cards provided by SPORCH.  More on that, below.

I also got out my small format edition of the Missale Romanum of St. John XXIII, which the nice people of St. John Cantius sent to me.  HERE

The whole thing folded out.


At the base of the center, main lid-wing, there is a notched ledge, on which altar cards could be placed.

Were I the carpenter, I would quiz the priest to find out if he wanted two long slots or grooves cut into the top surface near the back edge of the side-wings so that the two altar cards for the Lavabo and the Last Gospel could be placed in them, upright.  The carpenter might do well to team up with SPORCH.  As it is, the notch-rest is not quite long enough to hold the SPORCH cards.  Smaller cards would fit just fine, of course.  This is not a huge problem.  But a groove in the side-wings would offer some flexibility in the choice of altar cards.  The grooves should be long enough also to take the requiem card set, which is slightly larger.  Of course, for the Novus Ordo, this wouldn’t be a problem.


Now I have to find suitable, light candle sticks.  I suppose that little glass votive candles would work.  I must find, or have made, altar cloths.  A classic altar needs three, the top one being longer.  Then I must round up a vestment or two.  I think what I need for this is reproduction of the white and red reversible chaplain’s vestment, Roman style.  If I could find someone to make these, I would want also a reversible in purple and black, and maybe also gold and green.  Rose?

My mind is also starting to think about clips for altar cloths, to hold them if there is wind.

Also, I need a small wooden lectern that will fit into a side drawer.  If only I could find a miniature version of this one I use for my daily review of the Martyrologium Romanum.



In any event, this holy contraption is amazing.  You can tell that it was a work of real devotion, as befits a man who wants to be “St. Joseph’s apprentice”.

He wrote to me,

This altar was made completely by hand with St. Joseph guiding my hand.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did making it.  Please pray for many orders and the success of my business.


Rick Murphey
St. Joseph’s Apprentice

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Just Too Cool, Linking Back, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Our Catholic Identity, REVIEWS and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. OrthodoxChick says:

    There’s presently an opportunity on Etsy to rescue a small bible with book stand from the 1930’s. Not sure if this might fit your gorgeous new portable altar or not, but at first glance, it seems to have potential. Hope this link works.

  2. Martlet says:

    That is absolutely beautiful. I can’t stop looking at it!

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  4. APX says:

    Cathedral Candles make 51% and 64% beeswax votive candles. They’re ridiculously expensive compared to taper candles that I have purchased from Cathedral Candles (I think I paid something like $7/votive candle and $7.20/1″x19″ taper.)

  5. danhorse says:

    Fantastic job! As beautiful as it is cool!

  6. Nathan says:

    Of the many cool things I have seen on this blog, this is far and above the coolest.

    In Christ,

  7. OrthodoxChick says:

    Set of 2 mini candleabras on Etsy. Dimensions are: 5.24″ tall, 4.50″ wide, and base = 2.50″. $16.00 for the pair. Each candelabra holds 3 mini candles (tapers, by the looks of it). If any of these items will work well with your new altar, Father, maybe we readers can pick up some of these for you. Link:

  8. Super, super, super cool. Where does one purchase an altar stone?

  9. Elizabeth D says:

    That is amazing. Speaking of gift ideas for priests (or Catholic bloggers, or whoever), of a much smaller kind, I just got a Catholic Truth Society catalog today (this is a totally awesome UK group) and there is a new title (£2.50) authored by Rev Nick Donnelly: _Who is the Devil? What Pope Francis says_.

  10. Vecchio di Londra says:

    Exquisite – and so obviously made with love and dedication. Such craftspeople deserve our support.

  11. Fr. Erik Richtsteig says:

    Mine came last week. It is awesome!
    One doesn’t purchase an altar stone. (Mine was given to me by a late Monsignor friend who rescued it during the time of the desolation of churches.)

  12. Bea says:

    Some anonymous priest must have inspired this fine carpenter for him to know exactly what was needed.
    Kudos to both of them: Priest and Carpenter.

  13. Kevin Fogarty says:

    This piece is an illustration of the Benedictine principle of “ora et labora”. Before there is one more Catholic liberal arts school we need a Catholic trade school. This piece is a work of art, but it took building a whole lot of cabinets before he was good enough to do this.

  14. Mike Morrow says:

    I hope it comes with the warning: “Never point this powerful device at the congregation!”

    I can’t help but think the service this would have given military combat chaplains of the Vietnam and earlier wars (especially Fr. Emil Kapaun, MoH).

  15. benedetta says:

    I think faithful congregations, groups, families ought to invest in commissioning the crafting of these portable altars to have in places of safe keeping and to pass on to the next generation. The signs are all here that our young people will be in need of these.

  16. msc says:

    Absolutely gorgeous. It is wonderful to be able to do something like that gloriae Dei, so to speak. As a long-time amateur woodworker, I find this inspiring (and I’d like to see the plans). I agree with Kevin Fogarty: too many of the old skills are disappearing. I wonder how many people will be around in fifty years that can do any quality restoration work.

  17. Kensington says:

    That is so lovely it almost makes me want to be a priest. :)

  18. sawdustmick says:

    Like MSC, I am an amateur woodworker (in the UK). This is amazing, a labour of love and a work of true devotion. Thank you for sharing it/

  19. Rachel K says:

    This is absolutely beautiful. It immediately brought to my mind the “Burgess Altar” which can be seen at Ladyewell Shrine near Preston, England. It was a folding altar disguised as a cupboard and was used in the 1560’s in Townley Hall, a recusant house. You can see it on this link:
    The altar was used by many priests including, it is thought, St Edmund Campion, St Edmund Arrowsmith and Blessed John Woodcock.
    I can see how useful it would be to have a piece of furniture that doubled in this way in times of persecution.

  20. Rachel K says:

    Or indeed, how useful it will be…

  21. UncleBlobb says:

    I bet that would have come in handy while you were fighting the Chinese in Seattle.

    [How right you are! I wasn’t in that book, but I may have a chance to use the portable altar on the next planet to which we are deployed. OORAH!]

  22. Nicholas says:

    What’s an altar stone?

  23. Joseph-Mary says:

    St. Joseph’s apprentice has been quite busy. Fr. Peter Carota (
    has also received one.

    Good work, dear carpenter!

  24. mulieribus says:

    My husband builds these altars. He was first commissioned by Fr. Dennis Gordon to build him a portable altar around his antique altar stone that had been given to him by the Monsignor that baptized him – it came from a chapel in the Cristeros era. Praised be Jesus Christ! We are now on about altar no. 35 . We encourage any suggestions on how to improve them.

  25. JustaSinner says:

    Stopped sewing chasibles after previous priest said they were ugly, wrong size, and useless. He promptly torn the purple one and to this day it deals the cross during lent. Must say, the stone rejected by the builders shall become the corner stone. Kind if glad it adorns Christ’s cross than his liberal blubber; when we first met he stated I must be a Republican and all conservatives are evil. What ever….

  26. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent has a little article from 1907 by A. J. Schulte – who also has articles there about “Altar Clothes”, “Portable Altar”, and “Altar Cavity”.

    Fr. Z, or anyone else knowing the answer, I am not sure I understand a couple details from the last-mentioned of these: “If it is a portable altar the relics and the grains of incense are placed immediately, i.e. without a reliquary, into the cavity. This cavity must be hewn in the natural stone of the altar. […] In a portable altar the cavity is usually made on the top of the stone near the front edge, although it may be made in the centre of the stone. This cavity is called, in the language of the Church, the sepulchrum.”

    Does this mean that a tiny sepulchrum is carved into the altar stone, then sealed?

    While the “Portable Altar” article does not have a link to the word “Antimensium”, there is in fact a separate article by that name by A. Shipman. He writes that the antimensium “contains relics of the saints which are sewn into it, and certified by the bishop” but describes it as a “Consecrated corporal of a kind used only in the Greek Rite.” Is there any Western equivalent or analogue for combining relics and portable altar?

    Rick Murphey,


    Fr. Z, thank you for showing it in such detail!

  27. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I forgot to ask, following up on Fr. Erik Richtsteig’s comment: are new altar stones ever, or even customarily, consecrated for use in portable altars?

    By the way, for what might not wholly inccurately be described as a novel one of the the ‘heroes’ of which is an altar stone, try, if you have not already, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

  28. Venerator Sti Lot says: one of the ‘heroes’ of which is an altar stone, try, if you have not already, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

    Ah yes! After the death of Lady Marchmain, I believe:

    After she was buried the priest came in . . . and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday . . . I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn’t any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room.

    What a poignant scene, and the necessary set up for when Charles would return to Brideshead many years later.

    I need to watch it again, or perhaps listen to a good unabridged reading.

  29. MyBrokenFiat says:

    Wow. St. Joseph certainly was guiding your hand, Mr. Murphey! This is an incredibly beautiful altar. And to the priest-friend who donated the altar stone – wow. It truly is beautiful.

    Oh Father Z – what a blessing for you! No doubt this translates into a blessing for us, as well, for when a priest is given another tool to offer Mass, we all benefit through his prayers.

    What an incredibly beautiful (and useful) blessing.

    Out of random curiosity (and forgive me if what I ask sounds foolish), but how do you bless something like this? Do you do a separate blessing, or do you let the first Mass (given its significance) be blessing enough?

    Regardless – BEAUTIFUL! <3

  30. mamajen says:

    Exquisite! Everything about it is so tastefully done. It is nice to see someone put so much thought and care into craftsmanship today. I hope his business exceeds beyond expectation.

    This reminds me of a priest I know who used to move around a lot, and so made furniture that could easily move with him. Much of it was constructed from cardboard and woodgrain contact paper, but it worked for him. He made all kinds of moving parts and pieces and little compartments to hold particular items. I could imagine him inventing something like this.

  31. acardnal says:

    ” . . . but I may have a chance to use the portable altar on the next planet to which we are deployed.”

    Perhaps you can baptize some Martians while you are there. ;-)

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  32. jbryant says:

    Regina Magazine did a piece on St Joseph’e Apprentice last Nov

    The Perfect Gift for a Priest

  33. Elizabeth D says:

    “Perhaps you can baptize some Martians while you are there. ;-)”

    That will be a good photo for the front page of the Cathedral Parish website.

  34. kenned1105 says:

    That portable altar is awesome and definitely worthy of taking to an alien planet!

    It won’t be Martians…but there are a ‘host’ of other aliens to be baptized…

    Chris Kennedy

    [Baptized or… perhaps… just killed.]

  35. Kerry says:

    Regarding “polish” on a lacquer finish; stay away from Pledge, Endust and the the like. They have silicones in their formula, and the streaking from them doesn’t go away easily. Try a paste wax; Min-wax makes an OK one, or you might try Black Bison. (It is not a black wax, though it does have shades, one of which is black.) As lacquer is a film finish, and they are very tough, the wax will give a nice sheen. To test whether more wax is needed, buff the surface a bit. If it doesn’t shine up, apply some wax. Wax maybe once or twice a year. If the wax ever begins to look poorly or build up, turpentine will take it off and not affect the lacquer. And, African Mahogany is not a mahogany, though this does not disparage the wood whatsoever. It is a species of khaya, mahoganies are Swietenia genus. (Yes, more than you wanted to know.)

    Rick, very nice. I call my self a wood guy, or a furniture maker, though now I am beginning to make chairs from siberian elm. Are you a carpenter…? My elm slabs: SacreCoeurWoodshop(dot) blogspot . Some credentials, IBlameMyTools(dot) com Thanks Father Z.

  36. kenned1105 says:

    “Just killed” says the holder of Durandal. I guess that works, too.

    With Wayland the Smith making an appearance in the book following “Terra Stands Alone,” one wonders what will become of Durandal and its holder…

    Chris Kennedy

  37. jaykay says:

    msc says: “too many of the old skills are disappearing. I wonder how many people will be around in fifty years that can do any quality restoration work.”

    Not quite gone, DG. One of the superb free-standing wooden confessionals in our early-Victorian parish church was destroyed in a fire about four years ago (caused by a drug addict using it, although NOT for its intended purpose of course – o tempora!) and a local carpenter (cabinet- maker, really) made an exact replica, even down to getting the elaborate brass handles recast in a foundry. It looks like it’s been there forever. I do hope he has an apprentice to learn all these fine skills.

  38. Gaz says:

    My local church is quite small and it had the old altar pulled out in the 70s and it was replaced with a freestanding one that had a cupboard in the back. The old altar stone was kept in the sacristy cupboard (what were they thinking???). Seeing as Mass is celebrated every week in the church, I put the stone in the new altar’s cupboard so that Mass is celebrated at a consecrated altar now. An old bloke in the parish asked me what had happened to the altar stone one day. You should have seen his face as it changed from doubt, to surprise, to contented joy when I told him what I had done.

  39. HyacinthClare says:

    Has anybody asked the man how much it costs to buy one?

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  41. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Dear Fr. Z,

    Yes, exactly! Reading the passage you quote, we realize what Waugh lets Charles Ryder, as author of these “sacred and profane memories”, delicately imply in reporting, in the Prologue, his “newest-joined platoon-commander”, Hooper’s, news that “there’s a sort of R.C. Church attached” and “I looked in and there was a kind of service going on”, and in the Epilogue, the commanding officer’s news that a “jittery old bird”, a “blitzed R.C. padre”, has “opened the chapel”, and the details he goes on to add.

    Perhaps I should have said, “a novel, among the ‘heroes’ of which we find an altar stone (or two?)”. For he imples that an altar stone has once more been placed in the altar of the Chapel – but it is possible that it is not the same one, restored. (Maybe Father Membeling had a portable altar with him…?!)

    Further on in the passage you quote (from Book II, chapter 3), he remembers Cordelia asking, “You’ve never been to Tenebrae, I suppose?” and his answering “Never”, and her going on to quote, “Quomodo sedet sola civitas… It’s a beautiful chant.” And in the Epilogue, when he quoted it to himself while revisiting Brideshead, he says, “I thought, ‘and yet that it not the last word’ “, for what has come out of the work of its builders is “a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle”. Easter has come, Mass is celebrated, the Sacrament is reserved, for an altar stone has been placed in the altar once more.

    What a novel! – checking just how it went has made me want to reread the whole novel again, and see just how they did it in the old BBC series, too!

  42. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Father, this looks like something that could be useful down the road on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago or elsewhere.

  43. Sonshine135 says:

    I like it. I’d pay cash money if he could get you a matching portable pipe organ!

  44. KateD says:

    This would be an awesome gift for our priest, but it looks heavy. Is it possible to get one with wheels?

  45. aviva meriam says:

    I wonder how many hours are required to make something that beautiful and useful?

    Wish a collection would be started so that the newly ordained could be given one …..

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  47. Skeinster says:

    Fr. Z.
    E-mailed you privately with my contact info, but I could easily make you some linens.

    Like others, first saw this beautiful altar at Fr. C’s.

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