May altar

Altar with a statue of the Virgin Mary at the procession of the Flower & Palm Festival in Panchimalco, El Salvador. Photo: Kobby Dagan/Shutterstock
May Crowning at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, Cincinnati. Photo: Paul McKibben/Bayard

“Miss LaTassa, during recess today I’d like you to stay in the classroom and work on our May altar.”

It was the spring of 1973, and I was delighted to have been selected by Sr. Gemma to assemble the May altar for grade 4-1. Altar-building was a tradition at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School where, each year at the beginning of May, every classroom had its own little altar built by students and dedicated to the Blessed Mother. 

So when the recess bell rang that day, Sr. Gemma unlocked the supply closet at the back of the classroom and removed a box filled with plastic flowers, lace scraps, ribbon, two small tablecloths, pearlescent garland, vases, and a few home decorating magazines for me to peruse for inspiration. 

“Be sure to make Our Lady a lovely altar!” Sr. Gemma instructed with a smile before leaving me alone with the frippery and the House Beautiful magazines.

Sister had chosen me to design the May altar because I could draw well and, in the days before Hobby Lobby filled every imaginable crafting supply need, I had a knack for making artsy things out of junk. Unfortunately, Sr. Gemma didn’t know that I was as plodding as I was creative (or, according to my plain-speaking mother, “slow as molasses”).

How could Sister have known that, in handing me a heap of hodgepodge and a recess-period directive for a May altar, she may as well have given me all the pencil shavings in the classroom wastebasket and told me to spin gold from them before the fourth bell?

So I procrastinated.

I spent most of recess looking at magazine pictures of home accessories and designing achingly beautiful May altars in my head. I’d come across a photo of a rose topiary ball in one of the House Beautiful magazines. I resolved to have a rose topiary ball for our classroom altar, even if its creation did require a Styrofoam ball, a square of pink silk, a raft of toothpicks, and 150 hand-turned fabric roses. 

Since a May altar thus embellished was a vision of perfection too wonderful to keep to myself, I decided to give Sr. Gemma and my classmates a preview by drawing a plan for our May altar on the blackboard. In order to make sure that no one would overlook the key element in the design proposal, I drew the topiary ball in contrasting pink chalk.  

The end-of-recess bell rang, and Sr. Gemma and my classmates entered the classroom. Sister glanced at me, then at the blackboard, then again at me. She appeared confused. So did my classmates.

“Is that our May altar?” the students asked, pointing at the blueprint on the blackboard.  

“But where does the Mary statue go?”

“If that altar gets erased, can we make a REAL one?”

“How can we crown Mary if she isn’t there?”

“That’s the worst May altar we’ve ever had.”

Sr. Gemma settled the class down and then took me aside. It had become apparent that her handpicked altar stylist had chalked herself into a corner.

“Celeste,” she said, her compassion evident in her use of my first name, rather than the usual Miss LaTassa, “how would you like to be the head of the May altar committee? I know two other girls who would be very happy to help. Since you are so creative, you could show them what to do.” 

The May altar committee got down to business the following morning.  Creating a rose topiary ball was out of the question, so we made do with a batch of colorful plastic roses that had once decorated the birthday cakes of unknown honorees. 

After the committee had fully depleted Sr. Gemma’s supply of decorations, we carefully placed the Blessed Mother statue on the bedecked May altar. 

In the ensuing four weeks, the students of Grade 4-1 diligently kept the May altar tidy and its flower arrangements fresh. Each day they offered prayers before the homespun altar of Our Lady, whose statue had been ceremoniously crowned earlier in the month. I regularly brought in bunches of fragrant blue irises from our small Bronx backyard and placed them in the vases provided by Sr. Gemma.

I can’t say that, in my childish willfulness, I didn’t at first wish that those uninteresting irises would miraculously turn into petite pink roses studding a silk-wrapped sphere. Yet as I continued to take my turn placing flowers on the May altar, something happened. It dawned on me that Mary might actually like my irises better than the roses in House Beautiful. After all, didn’t God himself make them? And weren’t the irises’ soft ruffled petals the exact shade of Our Lady’s mantle?

I began to take pride in pleasing Our Lady with what I had ultimately decided were worthy flowers indeed. And if the floral mélange covering their classroom May altar gave any indication, then all the students of grade 4-1 were likewise delighting in gifting Our Lady with their simple bouquets. There is nothing, I’m sure, that could have given our Blessed Mother more joy.  

Not even a perfect rose topiary.

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