By Yadira Betances
---- — Allen Townsend, a member of Christ Church since the 1980s, said building a new altar for his Central Street church was a labor of love for him and his wife, Carol Reid Townsend.
In the middle of the altar, Townsend placed a Chi-Ro, one of the oldest symbols for Christ. He used ebony from Gabon, Africa to carve the letters onto the mahogany’s face to enrich the ornate ironwork in the sanctuary’s ceiling beams.
“It’s the sign of Christ, which marks it as his table,” Townsend said.
The letters Chi and Rho are the first two capital letters of the Greek work for Christ. They are superimposed to make the monogram.
“I’m very proud of it,” Townsend said. “It’s beautiful, creative and artistic. It’s about hope and it will be a significant part of the church’s life for years to come.”
The altar puts the finishing touch on a renovation project at Christ Church, which includes a new balcony for the organ featuring a wrought iron railing with a oak caps; wood details on the columns, beams and ceiling that matches the existing work in the sanctuary; installation of a ramp to make the altar accessible to the handicapped; adding dormers, or windows extending from the roof for natural light; replacing carpeting throughout the church with slate to enhance the acoustics and beauty and building a Romanesque arch leads to an apse or semicircle above the sanctuary featuring crowns, stars and crosses.
“At first I was intimidated to build an altar because it’s a very important part of the church. It’s the Lord’s table,” Townsend said. “It’s not just a beautiful piece of furniture, it’s a lot more than that.”
Bishop M. Thomas Shaw came recently to Christ Church at 25 Central St. to bless the altar and lead a service of leave taking for the Rev. Jeffrey Shilling Gill, pastor since 2005, who has taken a new assignment in Seattle, Wash.
Townsend, an Andover resident who retired from Bell Labs/Lucent Technologies, began working on the altar in August 2011 when the church started renovating its sanctuary. The goal was to create a table design instead of a box altar as the church had before. He read books on the history of altars to get ideas on designs.
After making hand sketches of different styles, Townsend made three-dimensional images on a computer.
The final design was accepted last December by Gill and Brother Kevin Hackett of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge.
Townsend said when Hackett saw the design it reminded him of a tree - sturdy and well grounded like the architecture of the sanctuary directing his eyes up to the top of the table and up to heaven.
Townsend used mahogany for the primary wood with Australian lace wood as an accent because its reddish brown color complements the mahogany. He said mahogany would also go well with the brown sandstone and red brick in the front wall of the sanctuary, while it stands out from the back wall paneled with white oak.
“This project has been a labor of love,” said Townsend. “I have used my hands, skills and tools to shape it and make it my own.”
His wife agreed.
“Over time, it will always be very special to us and the people in the church,” she said.
Originally from St. Louis, Allen Townsend has a degree in engineering from University of Mississippi and a master in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master of business degree.
He learned woodworking from his father. Through the years, it has been a hobby. He built a coffee table in 1973 that he still uses, as well as an English butler table and a desk.
Two years ago, he took a two-week class at the center for Furniture Craftsman in Rockport, Maine.
“I took it for the fun of it, but it was so exciting it gave me the confidence to move forward and build the altar,” he said.