Where is the church’s ‘sacristy’ and ‘rectory’?

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Father Kevin M. Smith, pastor of Our Lady of the Snow Parish in Blue Point, N.Y., is seen in the sacristy of his church as he prepares to celebrate Mass in 2021. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Question: As a new Catholic, I sometimes get confused with terms I hear. Recently, I was looking for the priest before Mass and was told he was either in the sacristy or the rectory. While I have heard such terms, I don’t really know what they mean. When the person pointed to the sacristy, it looked like there was some sort of social gathering in the room, and I was hesitant to walk in. Can you help me with these terms and explain what they are for? 

Yolanda DeSoto, via email

Answer: Yes, there is a tendency for any organization to use “inside language” and forget that not everyone understands the meaning of terms. There is also a kind of “church-speak” that sets up among Catholics that can be bewildering to new members.

The rectory is the house where the parish priests reside. Sometimes there are also parish offices on the lower floor of a rectory. It gets its name from “rector,” a word that describes the leader of a place (as in the word “director”). As such, the term refers especially to the pastor of a parish, but “rectory” has come to refer to any clergy who live there.

Father Dave Hennen, pastor at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Hastings, Minn., prays in the chapel of the parish rectory March 12, 2021. (CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit)

As for the sacristy, it is a room in the church usually adjacent to the altar or front door where the priest prepares for Mass. In the sacristy, the priest puts on his vestments. Other items for Mass are prepared there as well. The liturgical books, chalice, bread, wine, cruets and altar cloths are usually stored in the sacristy. The word “sacristy” comes from the Latin word, which is loosely translated as “little holy place” or “holy room.” Originally, it was envisioned as a place of prayer for the priest before Mass more than a storage room. A number of prayers were either assigned to the priest or considered a pious practice. Most notably, until 1965, priests were expected to pray the vesting prayers as they donned each vestment. Many priests still pray them, and priests who celebrate the traditional Latin Mass are expected to pray them. Unfortunately, in recent decades, the sacristy appears as anything but a place of prayer. It appears more like a “Grand Central Station” with large numbers of people going in and coming out, holding loud conversations, etc. It will be granted that liturgical ministers, such as lectors and servers, may need to gather there and hold necessary conversations. But ideally, a more spacious and appropriate location could be identified, and the priest encouraged to return to a discipline of brief prayer before the Mass. Parishes, at least on Sunday mornings, tend to be busy places and this is often reflected in the sacristy as elsewhere. There is a certain tension as to whether the church building should be a place of quiet prayer or of joyful gathering and exuberance. It is something that likely requires a balance and some respect for the expectations of the particular parish.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.