By Helena Rodriguez: PNT Staff Writer
Four sacred, pricey and ornate vessels donated to St. Helen Catholic Church by a priest in the 1950s were thought missing for eight years, but have recently been found in a bank safety deposit box.
The gold-plated vessels, which were made in Germany, include a ciborium, which is a dome-shaped goblet used to hold the Eucharistic bread, a dome-shaped cover for the ciborium, a chalice used to serve wine and a paten which is a plate to hold the Eucharist.
When Father James McGowan took over as priest of St. Helen in February, he said several members inquired about the chalices which were donated in the late 1950s by Father Desiderius Frey, who was the church’s second pastor. The chalices had not been seen since the departure of Father Anthony Martinez more than eight years ago.
McGowan said that a parishioner then showed him a picture of the prized ciborium which was featured in a catalog for an advertisement for Silver Owl, Inc., of Albuquerque, a company which restores fine ware. After learning from a parish council member that the church had a safety deposit box, he then went to Portales National Bank and was pleased to find the sacred vessels intact. He said that the previous priest, Father Tobin Hitt, probably did not know about the vessels.
“The vessels are very ornate, very beautiful. I don’t know how many parishes have chalices like this. For a small parish like St. Helen’s, this is a rarity to have pieces like this,” McGowan said.
He said he saw estimates for similar pieces which were in the $12,000 to $15,000 range and figures that with the age of these particular vessels, they are probably worth more.
“I’m sure to the parish, they are priceless,” McGowan added. “I’m just happy that they were located and that they are there for us to use. These were extraordinary gifts for a priest to donate.”
The newly found vessels were restored and then used on the altar during the Easter Vigil during Holy Week. McGowan said the vessels will be kept in the safety deposit box and will only be used for special occasions, such as the upcoming Holy Communion celebration in May and also during a confirmation mass when archbishop Michael Sheehan visits the parish. During regular masses, he will continue to use a basic gold chalice and ciborium set.
The ornate vessels are plated with gold. McGowan said he is not sure if it is real gold or not, noting that they need to be appraised by a jeweler. The ciborium and chalice stand taller than the average size of such vessels. He said standard chalices are about 10” and these stand at about 12”.
The vessel’s both have blue borders with Latin inscriptions which McGowan said say something like “In the blood of Christ” on the chalice and something about the body of Christ on the ciborium. The pieces also have silver inlay at the bases of the pedestals with medallion shaped images of the sacred heart of Jesus, Mary Queen of Heaven and other saints such as Peter and Paul. The actual pedestals of the vessels are encircled with silver figurines of various saints.
“To me, these vessels symbolize the beauty and the preciousness of the sacraments. We should treat sacraments with great respect and honor,” McGowan said.
One parish member, Ruby Peña, who has been a Eucharistic minister for more than 10 years, said, “These (vessels) are very beautiful and have special meaning. They have been in the church for many years.”
McGowan told of an incident in which some sacred vessels ended up in a private home and said this kind of thing should never happen. “Whenever, a church closes, vessels are sent to the archives in the archdiocese in Santa Fe for safekeeping.”
McGowan said that in the early days of the Catholic church, monks would use very ornate chalices such as these which were also set with exquisite stones. He explained how, many monasteries have a practice of exhibiting chalices used by monks who have passed away, “These chalices are exclusive works of art and are a nice way to remember a priest,” he said.