The altar is the main focus point of the Church. It is where Jesus is made present to us in physical form in the Eucharist. We believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus.
In a recent trip to Italy, one of the places we went to was Lanciano. Lanciano is a town that houses what is known to be a “Eucharistic Miracle.” In the ninth century, a priest was celebrating Mass at the altar. As he elevated the host, he doubted for a second that the host was actually Jesus. In that instant that host started to bleed. I was actually able to see this host on my last trip. But why would God have something like that happen? So that we may have faith that the Eucharist is actually Jesus in the flesh. Jesus said, “This is my body, given up for you” (Lk 22:19). The Eucharist is at the same time a meal and a sacrifice. What we see and experience is bread and wine, but at the spiritual level we encounter Jesus, whom we do not see.
Whenever a sacrifice is made to God, there is usually a stone altar made there. That is why Jacob set up a stone altar in Gen 35:7, and Elisha in 1 Kings 18:16-39 set up a stone altar. Today we have a marble altar, or if the altar is made of wood, it has a stone insert with a relic in it. This stone insert is placed in the spot where the body and blood of Jesus sits during Mass. That way, the bread and the wine are blessed and made into the body and blood of Jesus over the stone. We do not know which relics are in our altars. The year St Joseph Church was established, the Diocese of St Louise was established as our founding diocese in Freeport in 1833. By 1843, the Archdiocese of Chicago was founded. In 1908 the Diocese of Rockford was founded. In all of this, the paperwork has not been found.
As natural as our current high altar looks, it was not the original high altar. The original one was almost ten feet taller and a little wider. It could hold at least two life-size statues. It was taken down by Fr Daleiden in 1962 and replaced by a black marble altar. Unfortunately, this altar has seen some abuse. Not too many years after, a person came in and smashed it with a sledge hammer. The altar was big enough to make an ambo and side altar with the broken pieces. It was decided not to leave the church doors open after this incident. The high altar we have now is from St Mary’s Church in Dubuque, Iowa. It was slated for closing and Fr Barr got an email about its sale the day before Thanksgiving. It looked like it might fit. After inquiring about it, it was found to be of German design at about the same time St Joseph was built. Size is about perfect. About 3/4 of the parishioners approved getting it, so it was purchased and installed by Easter. There is no information on the relic in this altar either. Many people from Dubuque come today to visit their altar. Many have been wedded, confirmed, and received their first communions in front of this altar and are so thankful that we bought it and they can visit it. It is a reminder of how Jesus has entered into our lives in the sacraments. These altars are treasures we hold in our hearts till we see the day of our departure from this life. May that day be blessed!