May Altars: Dusting Off an Old Tradition

May altars may seem like an old-fashioned tradition, but they have relevance in today’s classroom. Here’s how to approach it with your students.

By Celeste Behe

Since the Middle Ages, the month of May has belonged in a special way to Our Lady. Medieval gardeners honored the Blessed Mother by naming the flowers of the season after Mary’s life and virtues, and they cultivated the flowers in beds that came to be known as Mary Gardens.

The gardens produced blooms with names such as Eyes of Mary (forget-me-nots), Our Lady’s Veil (baby’s breath), and Mary’s Sword of Sorrow (irises). The flowers would be gathered and placed before images of Our Lady and fashioned into crowns for Our Lady’s statues.

In his book Mese di Maria (Month of Mary), Italian Jesuit Father Annibale Dionisi says that “When we make an offering we ought to give of our best, so that among all the months of the year we choose the most beautiful, May, the season of flowers, which invites us to crown Mary with blossoms of good deeds.”

This Maytime custom of offering flowers to Mary gave rise to the May altar devotion, which by the mid-1800s was practiced in France — not only in churches but in Catholic homes, as well. One of these homes belonged to Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The Martin family’s May altar is described by Father Stephane-Joseph Piat in his Story of a Family:

At the beginning of May, the Blessed Mother statue was made the center of what amounted to a real oratory. A background was constructed of leaves and flowers, mixed with branches of hawthorn. Lights and baskets of flowers were arranged at Our Lady’s feet; nothing was considered too good for her. Mme. Martin wished to see her emerge from the wreaths and petals, and delighted in their fresh beauty.

From its small beginnings in Europe, the May altar devotion grew and flourished and eventually found its way into Catholic schools in the United States. Here teachers from religious orders built May altars in their classrooms and promoted the devotion to their students.

“I was taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in grade school,” says Sr. Anne D’Alessio, ASCJ. “The sisters encouraged us to go ‘to Jesus through Mary.’ Each year we had a classroom May altar and May crowning. Every day we prayed the Hail Mary. The sisters encouraged us to show our love for Jesus and Mary by bringing flowers from our gardens and placing them in front of the statue of Mary.”

Regrettably the past 50 years have seen a marked decrease in what St. Louis de Montfort, author of Treatise on True Devotion to Mary, called one of the “principal exterior practices” of devotion to Our Lady. St. Louis said that “to adorn [Mary’s] altars, to crown and ornament her images,” is one of the pious practices that ultimately serve to “establish more perfectly the devotion to Jesus Christ. There is nothing which makes devotion to our Lady more necessary for us … than that it is the means of finding Jesus Christ perfectly, of loving him tenderly, and of serving him faithfully.”

With such an abundance of merit attached to the traditions of the May altar, why is this practice widely neglected in schools?

Perhaps some teachers feel that old-fashioned May altars would be out of place in modern, technology-driven classrooms. Others may think that there is simply no time in the school day for “another activity” or are doubtful that they would be able to interest students in the devotion.

But as Professor Kurt Küppers points out in his book Marienlexikon, “The many and various forms of Marian devotion contain … that which fits to the times and that which is timeless.”

Far from being an outdated devotion, the May altar is a tangible sign of affection and honor for the woman who is herself “timeless,” whom “all generations shall call … blessed.”

It’s time for May altars to make a comeback in schools, and it’s up to Catholic teachers to make it happen. Think of your classroom as ground zero in the May Altar Revolution!

Of ivy and iPads

Nature multiplies its young and brings new life forth. This is something Mary intimately relates to, for it reminds her of carrying the Christ Child within. The sheer profusion of blossom and greenery after a winter of frost and bare branches is a share in Mary’s own Magnificat, her song of praise to God. (Father Francis Marsden, The Catholic Times of the Archdiocese of St Joseph’s Anderton, Liverpool, England, May 2009)

Few things have such enduring appeal as the spring season. Is there any student who hasn’t dreamed away class time while looking out at the Maytime “profusion” — whether real or imagined — “of blossom and greenery”?

When spring fever infects your students, the decorating of a classroom May altar might be just the remedy. Don’t let yourself be troubled by the juxtaposition of laptops and larkspur. Flowers and greenery are welcome additions to any indoor space, but they are especially refreshing in a technology-laden environment.

Engaging the “reluctant saints”

Let’s suppose that, armed with the helpful how-to from Today’s Catholic Teacher, you’re ready to assemble a May altar in your classroom. Your students sit before you. You notice with satisfaction that most of the girls look eager and interested. You notice with dismay that most of the boys look indifferent and distracted. It dawns on you that the boys might need a little persuading to take part in the May altar project. What do you do?

You talk to Chuck Harvey, of course.

Harvey is a Catholic leadership coach and the former director of The King’s Men, an organization whose mission is to “build up men in the mold of leader, protector, and provider.” He knows that boys can be averse to participating in activities they perceive as less than masculine.

“In terms of the May altar, certainly in order to attract boys it would be helpful to appeal to their natural attraction to chivalry and their inclination to act as protectors,” he says. “Think of knights protecting their Queen! I believe that focusing on the Rosary as a spiritual weapon and connecting it to Mary as Queen can make all the difference in engaging boys.”

Harvey also suggests that, if possible, a “strong male” should be recruited to model the behavior that the teacher would like to see from the boys in the class.

“If all the teachers are women,” says Harvey, “it might be more challenging to engage the male students.”

That is, unless those women teachers are like Sr. Jeanne Mary.

In the May/June 2012 issue of Parable magazine, Bishop Peter A. Libasci of the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire, reminisced about this sister and a certain May altar.

When I was in sixth grade, our teacher, Sr. Jeanne Mary, made a beautiful May altar for our classroom. She encouraged us students to bring in flowers to decorate the altar. The problem was that we were 56 boys and apparently not very motivated to participate in anything that involved flowers.

After many days, not one flower had been placed on the May altar. Sister was livid!

“How could you boys be so cheap as to not buy one 50-cent rose to honor our Blessed Mother? Don’t you realize that if you organized yourselves and took turns, you could keep a fresh rose on the May altar every day?”

Well, her scolding worked. We pulled together and, sure enough, one new rose was placed on our classroom’s May altar every day for the entire month. We boys actually took pride in what we achieved.

Years later I would come to understand what Sr. Jeanne Mary was up to besides fostering our devotion to the Blessed Mother. She was showing us that there are just some things a man should do. She was helping us to become men.

By the time we finished sixth grade, we boys were better behaved, we had better manners, and we understood the importance of honoring a woman with flowers, especially Jesus’ mother!

Celeste Behe is a blogger, speaker, and ardent Toastmaster. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her husband Mike and eight of their nine children.