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Thursday, 01 December 2022 09:30

An Ambry for Sacred Heart Cathedral

On Sunday 27 November, at the end of the 11.00 a.m. Mass, Bishop Shane Mackinlay blessed the new ambry at Sacred Heart Cathedral. In all the years since the first Mass at the Cathedral, there has never been an ambry, so it was a significant moment. Placed elegantly in the baptistry, the ambry gives new dignity to the Sacred Oils it houses.

An ambry is a cabinet used to hold the three oils used for various sacraments.  These oils are blessed by the Bishop at the annual Chrism Mass and distributed to all parishes of the Diocese.  In Sandhurst, the Chrism Mass is usually held on Tuesday of Holy Week*.

The ambry was designed and crafted by Sedgwick-based furniture maker and St Joseph’s Quarry Hill parishioner, Martin Coman.  Martin said he didn’t necessarily pray while working on the ambry, but it is no doubt a labour of love.  Martin believes his work is a vocation. ”There is a spiritual aspect to my work; if there wasn’t, it would be very difficult to produce things that are appealing.” 

 “Work must be meaningful, it’s a big part of what we do.  I really aim to please and in doing that I get satisfaction for myself,” he said.  Martin says people like him in traditional trades which focus on craftsmanship are being smothered by computerisation and mechanisation. “It’s sad, but it’s just the way the world is.”

In January, Martin started to conceptualise the ambry. “The eighth day was the first thought I had,” he said, “So, my very first sketch was an octagonal design.  The Baptistry is octagonal and I’ve done some work for Fr Andrew Fewings in the past – he initially explained the significance of the number eight, and the eighth day to me. The symbolism of the number 8 dates to the early Church.”

Martin created the ambry in an octagonal shape, modelling the form of the Baptistry. The octagon is symbolic of the meeting place between heaven and earth and the number 8 represents pine perfection, the eighth day of creation and the resurrection making Christ present.

Martin says it was an obvious decision to design the ambry in a gothic style, because Sacred Heart Cathedral is a gothic revival Cathedral.  “I designed the ambry in a Georgian Gothic style because of its simplicity, but within that simplicity every detail must be spot on. Georgian furniture is the furniture of furniture makers; it is beautifully crafted and high quality,” said Martin.

On top of the ambry is a Paderborn cross, which links the ambry to the history of the Diocese. The first priest of the Bendigo Goldfields was Dr Henry Backhaus who was from Paderborn, Germany.  Martin says that he believes the cross was originally from St Kilian’s; he bought it from Coppock Joinery, (formerly St Kilian’s Joinery, which was managed by the Diocese). “I bought all the old cutters that were used in the Cathedral from Coppock Joinery when they closed down. I used those cutters to shape the profile of the timber at the base of the ambry,” he said.

The ambry is made from Honduras Mahogony (Swietenia macrophylla).  “It’s very rare and you haven’t been able to buy it for about twenty years,” said Martin.  “I bought the mahogany from a friend a very, very long time ago and I had been waiting for the right purpose when Fr Brian suggested I make an ambry.” 

Martin expressed sadness that old growth forests have not been managed sustainably.  “In the 90s Australia mass-exported raw blackwood to China where it was used for any purpose.  Blackwood is so rare now. For me personally, such lovely old-growth timber should be reserved for special purposes,” he said.

It seems the ambry holds more than the Holy Oils.  It keeps stories of the way we value natural resources, and traditional craftmanship, the changing nature of work and the need to live more simply and sustainably.  Most of all, with the Holy Oils proudly on display, it reminds us of our baptismal call.

Bishop Shane Mackinlay Parying before blessing the Ambry with Administrator of the Cathedral Parish Cluster, Fr Brian Boyle, Martin Coman and his family. 

 Bishop Shane Mackinlay, Fr Brian Boyle and Martin Coman and family after the Blessing of the Ambry on 27 November, 2002.

At the Chrism Mass, the first oil blessed is the Oil of Catechumens, which is used to anoint those being baptised into the Catholic faith. The second oil is the Sacred Chrism, commonly used immediately after Baptism, but also at Confirmation and Holy Orders. The last oil blessed by the Bishop is the Oil of the Infirm, which is used by priests for the Anointing of the Sick. 

 27 November 2022