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Westminster Cathedral

The Sacristy

Behind the scenes at Westminster Cathedral: a busy, yet reflective moment in the sacristy before another major service. Celebrant, Servers, members of the Cathedral Choir pause before the celebration of Mass on Pentecost Sunday

The Cathedral sacristy is situated immediately behind the Lady Chapel. It does not form part of the public part of the Cathedral. The main ‘inner’ sacristy is the area where priests vest before Mass, and the small ‘outer’ sacristy is the working area where most of the preparations for services and other cleaning or maintenance work is carried out.

The Cathedral’s treasury includes a number of important artefacts stretching back over 600 years.

Cathedral Sacristan - a background view

Those of you who visit the Cathedral regularly will undoubtedly have seen at least one of the sacristans going about the daily routine of preparing for one of the many services held in the Cathedral, or otherwise performing one of the other varied tasks which are necessary for the day to day running of the Cathedral.

These days, there are three sacristans employed in the Cathedral. They are responsible for the preparations in respect of all of the services with the exception of the early morning Masses which are prepared by a volunteer. Overall responsibility for the function of the sacristy lies with the Prefect of the Sacristy, one of the Cathedral Chaplains, currently Fr Slawomir Witon, who is also the Sub-Administrator.

The most visible sign of a sacristan in the Cathedral is immediately prior to the celebration of Mass, when the chalice, water and wine, wafers and other essential items needed, are brought to the sanctuary. The candles are then lit, the lights and microphones are switched on, the sacristy bell sounds, the priest appears and Mass begins. It sounds very straightforward, but there is a great deal of preparatory work and essential ongoing tasks which need to be performed, many of them unseen, to enable services in the Cathedral to run smoothly.

The sacristy itself is situated immediately behind the Lady Chapel. It does not form part of the public part of the Cathedral, being accessible via the doors at the end of the corridor immediately to the south of the Lady Chapel. The main ‘inner’ sacristy is the area where priests vest before Mass, and the small ‘outer’ sacristy is the working area where most of the preparations for services and other cleaning or maintenance work is carried out. A small number of vestments are always laid out in the main sacristy in the appropriate liturgical colour of the day. On major occasions, when there are large numbers of concelebrating priests, additional vestments are made available, even, on very special occasions, being borrowed or hired to supplement those held by the Cathedral. The Cathedral’s collection of vestments is substantial. Numerous traditional ‘Roman’ style vestments are stored in the sacristy itself and more recently a substantial number of modern ‘Gothic’ style vestments have been purchased. These latter vestments are being worn more and more frequently and are now used at most of the major occasions. In addition there are a number of antique or other elaborate vestments which are only used occasionally on major feast days or on very special occasions. The sacristan is responsible for all preparations relating to vestments and for ensuring that they are laid out each day in the correct liturgical colour. Holy Week and Easter are particularly busy times with many extra liturgical functions to service in addition to the normal work.

On entering the Cathedral, one of the first things that may be immediately noticeable is that the sanctuary is dressed in the liturgical colour of the day. Generally this means green for ordinary time, white for the seasons of Easter and Christmas, and also for most feast days, purple for the seasons of Lent and Advent, and red for feasts of martyrs and for other special feast days such as Pentecost. The sacristan is responsible for the changing of all altar frontals and other items which are draped in the liturgical colour of the day. At the end of each day, after the last Mass, these items are changed, where necessary, in anticipation of the following day’s services. In the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, the tabernacle is always covered in the appropriate colour. On some days, these items are changed several times to accommodate additional services such as weddings, funerals or other special Masses. In addition, all of the various altar linens are replenished on a regular basis.

The celebration of Mass involves the use of vessels such as chalices, communion ciboria, and other items of silverware. The Cathedral holds a large number of such items. In addition, certain vessels are only used when the Archbishop of Westminster is the celebrant. The sacristan, unless specifically instructed otherwise, will generally decide which items to use.

On walking around the Cathedral, it is noticeable that there are numerous votive candle stands in use, and at any given time there is likely to be a substantial number of small candles burning. In fact, over 50,000 such candles are burnt every month in the Cathedral. Nowadays the more modern flat candles in plastic containers are used as these are generally cleaner and simpler to maintain. It is the sacristan’s responsibility to fill up the various containers and remove the empty shells of burned-out candles. On the sanctuary itself, the high altar is adorned with a set of six very large candlesticks. These candles are lit from time to time, generally at the High Mass on Sundays and other major feast days. When the Archbishop of Westminster celebrates Mass, a seventh identical candlestick is placed on the balustrade behind the high altar. There are four candles on the main forward altar, six on Sundays and feast days. On solemn feast days, it is the custom for reliquaries to be placed on the main altar and for an additional set of six candles to be placed on the balustrade wall at the front of the sanctuary. The maintenance and replacement of all of these candles is carried out by the sacristan. In addition, there are candles to be maintained in other parts of the Cathedral, notably in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and the Lady Chapel, and whenever Mass is celebrated in any of the various side chapels, a special set of candlesticks and a crucifix (each chapel has its own set) has to be prepared and placed in the appropriate chapel. In front of the tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, there are always three hanging sanctuary lamps burning, as well as a similar lamp in the Lady Chapel. These are replenished each week. As a result of all of these requirements, together with various other needs on special occasions, the Cathedral has to obtain and maintain a considerable supply of candles of various sizes, all of which forms part of the sacristy function.

In addition to the preparations for scheduled Masses in the Cathedral, the sacristan has to prepare for other regular or one-off services as required. These include Sunday Vespers and Benediction, the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament service on Mondays, baptisms, weddings and funerals as arranged, and other special Masses or services, some of which occur only once a year, and many of which are unique with their own special requirements.These descriptions relate to only a selection of the tasks undertaken by the sacristans in the Cathedral. There are various other tasks, sometimes simple, sometimes quite unusual, involving, in addition to the Cathedral itself, several other locations around the Cathedral complex.

The period over the last year or so has been unique, including, most recently, the Installation of the Archbishop Vincent Nichols and the visit of the Relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Working in the Cathedral over this period has certainly been a unique experience even if, at times, things have been rather hectic. If everything appears to run smoothly on major occasions, then it is certain that there is a considerable amount of unseen work going on behind the scenes. The role of sacristan in Westminster Cathedral can itself only be described as unique!

First published in Oremus, the magazine of Westminster Cathedral October 2001.