David Cahoon does what Jesus did, and Jesus’ earthly father before Him.
He’s a carpenter, and like the Christian figure whose life he has sought to emulate, Cahoon embraces the task of transforming mundane pieces of wood into works of religious glory.
His latest project calls for building a semi-permanent altar for Pope Francis’s visit to the United States next month. The altar — whose design was chosen in a competition between 18 teams of Catholic University students — will be used when the pontiff celebrates a large outdoor Mass on Sept. 23 on the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington. Then, the altar will be installed inside the basilica.
It is one of 14 pieces Cahoon is building for the pope’s visit. Among other items, Cahoon is also overseeing construction of a papal chair, along with eight smaller matching deacons’ chairs; an ambo, which is a lectern from which the Gospel and other texts are read; and a reliquary stand to be used in a ceremony for Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Franciscan friar who founded missions in California and will be canonized as a saint.
Cahoon, 58, also built an altar for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Washington in 2008. With a little less than a month to go before Pope Francis arrives, the carpenter is on a tight deadline and is reluctant to take a break of any kind.
But Cahoon — soaked in sweat, flecked here and there with fine sawdust, his blue eyes looking a bit bloodshot near the end of the workday — paused from his labors at his workshop in Poolesville, Md., to discuss what he said was one of the most meaningful projects of his life. It is his way of paying homage to Jesus’ life, teachings and — above all — His sacrifice, Cahoon said.
“What did He do with wood, man? You think He did something fantastic with that tree?” Cahoon said, referring to the wooden cross of the crucifixion and throwing his own arms out wide in imitation of Jesus on it. “He’s the greatest of all carpenters, in that sense.”
The altar — which is being fashioned from locally sourced and recycled medium-density fiberboard — echoes the Romanesque-Byzantine style of the basilica.
The winning design for the altar and papal chair — chosen from submissions at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning — was the work of three architecture students: Ariadne Cerritelli of Bethesda; Matthew Hoffman of Pittsburgh; and Joseph Taylor of Eldersburg, Md.
The altar will stand about 40 inches high with a surface made with an 8-by-4-foot stone slab that can be removed to allow the altar to be moved. (Cahoon said the archdiocese looked into the possibility of using stone for the entire altar, but it would have weighed a prohibitive 4,000 pounds.)
To get the best color match, stain will be applied to the wooden portion of the altar inside the basilica.
After the pope celebrates Mass, the altar will be moved inside the basilica’s nave.
On Wednesday, Cahoon was clamping and gluing and fretting that he had a long way to go. All finished, the altar will weigh about 900 pounds.
“I couldn’t have imagined doing anything better than building an altar for the pope,” Cahoon said. “To do it a second time? That’s like lightning striking twice.”
The pope is scheduled to arrive at Joint Base Andrews on Sept. 22. He will also make stops in New York and Philadelphia. Cahoon said he is just as excited for Pope Francis to come as he was for other papal visits; he has no favorites among the popes, he said. He says he believes that God gives the church the right person at the right time. But he also admitted that he was especially cheered by Pope Francis’s recent remarks that were interpreted as a call to fight back against global warming.
“What he was saying was that when we poison creation, we poison ourselves, spiritually. I really thought that was fantastic,” Cahoon said.
Cahoon, also known as Deacon Dave, has loved woodworking since he was a kid. His nickname then was Woody, a play on his middle name, Linwood.
He liked watching carpenters work on the homes going up near his in Rockville. He liked working with something that was once alive and then fashioning it into treehouses, forts and other items. He said he loves wood as a material, loves the way that every board is unique. In college, he studied philosophy, but his hobby snatched his heart.
“It may be a hobby that went nuts,” he said, laughing. “I think it has, at this stage in my life, become a prayer.”
In 1990, Cahoon aligned his day job with his religion. He established St. Joseph’s Carpentry Shop, a business that specializes in building and renovating religious structures. He is fixing the steeple at St. Mary’s Parish and Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Barnesville, Md., where he is assigned as a deacon. He also renovated pews at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, for President Obama’s inauguration.
“He’s passionate, like I am, about woodworking,” said Doug Fauth, 56, of Monrovia, Md. Fauth, who owns Carriage Hill Cabinet Co. in Frederick, is a kindred spirit: He studied chemical engineering in college but instead chose to be a cabinetmaker because of his love of woodworking. Fauth, who also is Catholic, said he jumped at the chance to work with Cahoon.
“Everybody loves him,” Fauth said. “He’s very personable. He is a deacon and he’s just plain good people. He’s always willing to help you in any kind of situation.”
Cahoon said he has long admired St. Joseph, who was described as an “honest man,” and tried to emulate him. He also liked that Jesus is traditionally cast as a carpenter, or at least a carpenter’s son, who worked with his hands before taking up his religious mission. (The reference is to a Bible passage, Mark 6:3, that calls Jesus a carpenter — and arguably in a condescending way after He astonished members of a synagogue with his teaching of Jewish law. Biblical scholars say the translation of the Greek word in the Gospel — tekton — has a broader meaning of craftsman.)
Cahoon became an ordained deacon in 1991 — a ministry position that, for some, is a stepping stone to the priesthood. Cahoon said he had no such aspirations, but he welcomed the chance to assist the priest by ministering at weddings, funerals and other functions. As he sees it, serving as a deacon is also a way of elevating ordinary duties to the realm of the divine.
“We were made to wait on tables,” Cahoon says, referring to a Bible passage, Acts 6:1-6, that describes the appointment of seven of Jesus’ followers to assist with the apostles’ ministry. “See, that’s where the connection for me is the deepest. If you look at it, they were waiting on tables, but they were waiting at the table of the eucharist, which is an altar. So whenever I get the chance to build an altar — not for the pope, but whenever you have a chance to build an altar — it’s where heaven meets earth.”