The sanctuary includes not only the area inside the main sanctuary arch but also part of the transept area in front of it. This sanctuary area is separated from the main body of the church by the altar rail and is raised two steps above the church floor level. The faithful used to kneel at the railing to receive communion, holding beneath their chins a beautifully embroidered linen cloth that ran the length of the rail. The cloth was intended to ensure that, if the Blessed Sacrament were somehow dropped, it would fall on spotless linen, not on the floor.
Five feet behind the altar rail, a third step raises the sanctuary area itself further above the church and finally the main altar stands elevated on two more steps so that it dominates the whole interior of the building.
The altar of sacrifice was added in front of the main altar after Vatican II, and has Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper", cast in plaster, inset into the base. This was originally in the base of the main or "high" altar, but was moved to the present altar of sacrifice following Vatican II.
The depiction in the plaster cast follows closely Leonardo da Vinci's painting. The backdrop, specifically the side walls, have been altered to accommodate the foreshortened depth of the plaster casting.
The Last Supper specifically portrays the reaction given by each apostle when Jesus said one of them would betray him. All twelve apostles have different reactions to the news, with various degrees of anger and shock. The apostles are identified from a manuscript (The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci) with their names found in the 19th century.
From left to right, according to the apostles' heads: Bartholomew, James, son of Alphaeus, and Andrew form a group of three; all are surprised.
Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form another group of three. Judas is wearing green and blue and is in shadow, looking rather withdrawn and taken aback by the sudden revelation of his plan. He is clutching a small bag, perhaps signifying the silver given to him as payment to betray Jesus, or perhaps a reference to his role within the 12 disciples as treasurer. He is also tipping over the salt cellar. This may be related to the near-Eastern expression to "betray the salt" meaning to betray one's Master. He is the only person to have his elbow on the table and his head is also horizontally the lowest of anyone in the painting. Peter looks angry and is holding a knife pointed away from Christ, perhaps foreshadowing his violent reaction in Gethsemane during Jesus' arrest. The youngest apostle, John, appears to swoon.
Apostle Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip are the next group of three. Thomas is clearly upset; the raised index finger foreshadows his incredulity of the Resurrection. James the Greater looks stunned, with his arms in the air. Meanwhile, Philip appears to be requesting some explanation.
Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot are the final group of three. Both Jude Thaddeus and Matthew are turned toward Simon, perhaps to find out if he has any answer to their initial questions.
In common with other depictions of the Last Supper from this period, Leonardo seats the diners on one side of the table, so that none of them has his back to the viewer. Most previous depictions excluded Judas by placing him alone on the opposite side of the table from the other eleven disciples and Jesus, or placing halos around all the disciples except Judas. Leonardo instead has Judas lean back into shadow. Jesus is predicting that his betrayer will take the bread at the same time he does to Saints Thomas and James to his left, who react in horror as Jesus points with his left hand to a piece of bread before them. Distracted by the conversation between John and Peter, Judas reaches for a different piece of bread not noticing Jesus too stretching out with his right hand towards it (Matthew 26: 23).
The two side altars and the main altar are all enclosed in a great double arch that extends across the span of the church. Everything is painted to simulate marble or plaster fresco but in reality, it is all painted wood. The side altars are angled towards the centre line of the church at about a twenty degree angle, and each is half the width of the main altar. The angled wall behind the side altars connects the outer double arch of the sanctuary arch itself. This large sloped area between the outer and inner arches has been decorated with the words: SANCTUS, SANCTUS, SANCTUS, DOMINUS DEUS SABAOTH, which is "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts". Between the five cartouches containing these words appear six little angels. The faces on the angels are portraits of six little girls who attended the church in 1901; one is Kathleen (Moynahan) Noonan who is still living at this writing.
The right side altar is dedicated to St. Joseph and that on the left to the Blessed Virgin. The altars have domes over the statues and the battlemented walls and towers along the top are miniatures of those on the exterior roof line of the church front. The altars themselves show the hand of Ed Meloche in their gaudy faux-marbre and complicated ornament. Beside the altar of St. Joseph is the memorial plaque to Father Lavin set up a few weeks after his death and carefully maintained to the present.
The sanctuary is of a different geometry than the rest of the church. Seen from outside the church, it is a cylinder capped with a half dome. On the interior this takes the form of a semi-circular sanctuary nearly as tall as the main church but half as wide, so that the sanctuary is relatively taller in relation to its width. This arrangement gives room for the lofty main altar, far higher than is usual in classic churches. It also avoids the oppressive low sanctuary ceiling often seen in these buildings. The relationship of the parts of the sanctuary are carefully calculated. The face of the statue of Jesus is at the centre of the whole sanctuary opening and the cross atop the altar is exactly on the same level as the tops of the pillars of the church. In this way the architecture of the whole building is focused on Jesus and the Cross on the high altar.
For decorative purposes the artist divided the sanctuary into five bays. These bays are separated by faux-marbre pillars that are exactly one-third the diameter and two-thirds the height of the pillars of the main church. From the tops of the six pillars spring six ribs that converge at the top of the half dome. The areas between these pillars and ribs contain the decoration of the sanctuary proper. At floor level, the sanctuary is surrounded by a fine hardwood wain-scotting to protect the walls from wear and tear.
Above the wainscotting, the two bays on each side of the altar contain the famous murals of the Resurrection, Annunciation, Nativity and Ascension of Our Lord, now restored to their original beauty. The paintings appear to be in frames that reflect the pillars on either side, but in reality, everything is paint on a flat surface.
Above the paintings, circular medallions fill the tops of the arches. Those nearest the main church are real windows; the other three are painted. In the right hand window we see an outer border of yellow, brownish main panes and a central picture of the elements of the Eucharist: grapes, a sprig of wheat and a Chalice. The left hand window portrays the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance, surmounted by a dove, the Holy Spirit, and wreathed with grapevines and wheat below. The name of the artist, T. Beaudrie, is painted in the border of the right hand window.
The three painted medallions in the remaining arches show symbols related to Christ and the Blessed Sacrament. On the right, the Bread is indicated by a Host shedding rays of light, wreathed with wheat. On the opposite side, the left-hand medallion shows a chalice wreathed in grapevine and containing a bunch of grapes. The central medallion, behind the altar, displays the CHI-RHO monogram of Jesus wreathed in the palm fronds of triumph.
Above the circular windows are real arches at the roof line of the half dome. In the spaces between the ribs of the roof are seen symbols of the death and resurrection. Starting on the right, the first painting refers to the sufferings and betrayal of Our Lord. There is a central pillar upon which a rooster crows. Behind are crossed a torch and a lantern on a staff, all bound in a ribbon or band. The torch and lantern refer to the arrest of Jesus at night in the garden, as does the band, for He was "bound and led away". The rooster is the cock that crowed thrice as Peter betrayed Our Lord. The second painting on the right contains symbols of building: from a cross flies a banner bearing the name Jesus; the cross is flanked by an axe, a chisel and a square, symbols of foundation of the church.
Above the altar cross is depicted the Lamb of God lying on the closed Book of Scripture with its seven seals. The Lamb bears the labarum, the flag of Christendom triumphant; the whole floats on a cloud to indicate heaven.
In the fourth painting, the Cross is draped with Jesus' shroud with two ladders crossed behind. The ladders indicate crucifixion and death - one ladder to take up the Victim, one to bring down His dead body. The fifth painting is that of the crossed spears of the soldiers who crucified Jesus. In front is His seamless garment and the dice with which the soldiers gambled for it. Thus the decoration of the sanctuary can be seen to move from pictures of betrayal and death on the extreme left and right to divine triumph in the centre.
© 1992 (text) Terence Currie - Used with permission