Late this summer in a Philadelphia prison, a Frederick, Md., industrial park, a Maine furniture workshop and a gritty garage in Port Chester, N.Y., woodworkers were praying their custom chairs would be ready for Pope Francis’s visit this week.
As organizers of the pope’s first visit to the United States were struggling to coordinate road closures and papal parades, a handful of artisans were sanding wood.
You can’t just walk into a furniture store and pick up a proper chair for Pope Francis, 78, who arrived in Washington on Tuesday and will travel to New York and Philadelphia on his six-day visit. But because this pope is known for his penchant for a more humble lifestyle (no more red leather pope shoes), church officials indicated to local event planners that the pontiff would prefer simple wooden chairs without any fancy embellishments.
The pope’s chair, according to Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, “is a great symbol of the unity and teaching authority that Pope Francis has.” Dolan said this on Sept. 2 at the media unveiling of a tall wooden armchair at Madison Square Garden, the setting of Francis’s Friday Mass. This chair was constructed by a group of immigrant day laborers from Don Bosco Workers in Port Chester, a nonprofit organization that advocates for youth and low-income workers and is connected to the Salesians of Don Bosco religious order. “A chair represents unity and a chair represents teaching authority. The man who occupies the chair of Saint Peter . . . is our holy father the pope, bishop of Rome,” Dolan told the crowd as he pulled off a black cloth to reveal the design. “So wherever he goes, you have to have an important chair.”
So for the pope’s Independence Hall speech in Philadelphia on Saturday as part of the World Meeting of Families, he and four cardinals are scheduled to be seated in Thos. Moser Catena armchairs with custom cushions. According to Thomas Moser, founder and president of the Maine-based firm, the simple, Windsor-style chairs reflect the style of seating at historic Independence Hall.
Moser, a master woodworker, offered his chairs to the Philadelphia organizers; he also provided chairs in 2008 for Pope Benedict’s visit to the White House. In consultation with officials from the World Meeting of Families and the Philadelphia archdiocese, the company decided to go with its Catena chair, a piece made of Western Pennsylvania cherry and ash from the Northeast, and customized it for the pope, fitting it with a white cushion.
“If you look at church design and iconography, the pope’s chair is incredibly important, and it’s usually a pretty grandiose thing,” says Moser, whose designs have a Shaker-like look. “The fact that Pope Francis is rejecting all the grandiosity is important.”
The Thos. Moser chair isn’t the only one being crafted for the pope’s stop in Philadelphia. Another is a walnut chair designed by Philadelphia Prison System staff and inmates that was constructed at the carpentry shop at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. This is the same prison campus that includes the Curran-Fromhold Correctional facility, which the pope will be visiting Sunday. The chair will be presented as a gift to Francis during his meeting with prisoners and their families. The inmates who worked on the chair are part of the Philacor program, a vocational program that teaches skills to help them get jobs after their release.
In Washington, one of the pope’s chairs is a tall seat with a graceful arch and white cushions and armrests, which was slated to be used at Wednesday’s outdoor Mass on the east steps of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. A jury, which included representatives of the Archdiocese of Washington, the Basilica and Catholic University, selected designs (including altar components) submitted by teams that included Catholic University School of Architecture and Planning students. Members of the winning design team selected in the spring were Ariadne Cerritelli, Matthew Hoffman and Joseph Taylor. Their concept paper stated that the chair be “designed to bring focus not on itself but on the Vicar of Christ himself who will preach from it.”
The chair is made of cherry and cherry veneers, locally sourced because of “the holy father’s recent encyclical about using locally sourced products,” according to David Cahoon, a carpenter who supervised the construction process in a Frederick workroom. Cahoon is also a deacon for the Archdiocese of Washington.
According to Hoffman, the students’ design reflected the architectural style and elements of the Basilica, including columns and arches. “We did have to simplify it a bit at the direction of the Vatican,” he says. “We had called for a coat of arms to be put on the front of the chair, but they wanted the whole front side very plain.”
Making the chairs was a special experience for those involved.
Salvatore Sammarco, a brother in the Salesians of Don Bosco and a former high school furniture-making instructor, worked with three Don Bosco carpenters to build the chair for the Madison Square Garden Mass. For them, the task was not a chore but a calling. Sammarco, 76, swept out the small Port Chester garage where they would be working, procured tools from a local woman whose husband had died, borrowed tables from a church and got Home Depot to donate the oak.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening. It felt like I was dreaming,” Sammarco says. “We were working on the chair that the holy father was going to sit in.”
Sammarco said their month-long project attracted a flurry of people every day who wanted to see the chair, touch it and sit in it. People started signing their names and intentions they wanted to bring before the pope. These are now all hidden under the armcaps and behind the white upholstery. “We would pray the rosary outside after work at 3 p.m. with anyone who wanted to join us,” he says. “We had all kinds of people come to visit.”
Sammarco said the project was about a lot more than just the building of a chair. “It’s very moving. This is a point of communion of people, no matter what their faith. Just for me to talk about it is very emotional. It’s just so powerful.”