First Communion students build mini altars, learn alongside parents


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — First Communion students at St. Mary Parish dug into shoeboxes filled with yellow clay, pieces of linen, chocolate “missals” and small wooden altars after Mass on March 31. With their parents’ help, the students molded the clay into chalices, patens, ciboria and candle holders. They placed all of the items needed to celebrate the Eucharist, in proper order, on a tiny replica of a wooden altar. Before they could take the mini altars home, students had to name and describe each item.

First Communion students build mini altars, learn alongside parents

The project’s intention was to help students “key into the Mass, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer,” said Patti McTag­gart, who leads the parish’s first Communion preparation. Knowing the name and purpose of each item gives children a better understand about what is going on.

Often, the parents — even those raised Catholic — are unfamiliar with the names of some items needed to celebrate Mass. With this project, they learned alongside their children. “The most important thing is that kids and parents are working together,” McTaggart said. “Parents are the primary educators of the faith to their children. Having them involved with any sacramental prep is essential.”


Student Grace Nicpon said, “Before, I didn’t know what (the items) were called and I feel I learned a lot by making the different pieces.” Her mother, Megan, said: “It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot as well. It was fun for (Grace) because she loves to do creative things.”

This first-time project for St. Mary’s students had its origins more than 60 years ago in the religious education class that McTaggart’s mother, Pat, taught at St. Thomas More Parish when it was in Iowa City. Later, her daughter Patti incorporated the project into her second-grade classes at Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City when she taught there in the 1980s and 1990s. This is Patti McTaggart’s first year leading Com­munion preparation at St. Mary’s.

Student Luke Shounick made a mini altar for Bishop Thomas Zinkula on behalf of the students. Luke said he’ll probably keep his own mini altar in his room at home. He thought the project helped him remember the elements of eucharistic preparation better.

Patti McTaggart credited parish secretary Rachel Santos and her family for helping make some of the items. Santos and her sisters fashioned missals out of mini-chocolate bars, featuring a Eucharistic prayer printed on each one. Santos’ husband, Cesar, made the wooden altars.
About 40 youths will celebrate first Communion in early May. In two years, the youths will be eligible to participate in altar server training. Patti McTaggart believes that familiarizing students with the items required to celebrate Eucharist will make them more receptive to becoming altar servers.

She enjoyed having the opportunity to bring her mother’s tradition to St. Mary’s, but more important was her mother’s presence. Pat McTaggart helped her daughter test the students after they finished their altars. Each time a student correctly identified an item and its purpose, Pat McTaggart smiled. “They were wonderful,” she said of the students.

Items needed to celebrate the Eucharist

Corporal: White linen cloth on which vessels containing bread and wine are placed.
Purificator: White cloth used to cleanse the chalice.
Paten: Shallow, saucer-like dish that holds the hosts which become the body of Christ at consecration.
Chalice: Large cup that holds the wine which becomes the blood of Christ at consecration.
Ciborium: Vessel used to hold the hosts to be consecrated for Communion.
Altar stone: Solid piece of natural stone, consecrated by a bishop, large enough to hold the ciborium and chalice.
Altar cloth: Cloth that covers the altar.
Roman Missal: Contains the Eucharistic prayers.
Candles: Placed appropriately on the altar, they are a symbol of the light of Christ.

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