General Assembly communion ware: The backstory

Chalice and Plate-1070622
Photo by Bob Ponder

When General Assembly comes to town, everyone’s to-do list grows by miles.  There are volunteers to train, worship services to plan, special events to arrange and even movies to film. Last year, Detroit Presbytery, the host of the 221st General Assembly, sprung into action to accomplish all of this! At the time, I was serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Warren, Michigan, and was welcomed as a member of the presbytery’s General Assembly worship planning team.  Although I had served as a commissioner to the 220th General Assembly in 2012, the scope of work required to organize worship at the gathering was staggering even to me.

There was one particular challenge, new to both the presbytery planners and staff at the Office of the General Assembly: daily communion! Moderator Neal Presa was developing a sacramental focus for General Assembly and requested that, in addition to incorporating baptismal themes, communion be part of every worship service during the assembly.  In past years, communion was served only once, at the opening service. The move to daily celebration requires lots more servers and loaves of bread, not to mention a smooth plan to serve hundreds of people in a short time while still incorporating preaching, songs and liturgy. While the emphasis on communion raises challenges for the mechanics of worship, it is a welcome and important shift.  My experience as a commissioner was meaningful but also draining. I believe that coming to the table each day will serve to unite commissioners and offer them sustenance for their difficult work of discernment. It will allow them to “Abound in Hope,” the theme for this year’s assembly.

As the worship planning team took in all this information and began to assign tasks, I tried to figure out where my gifts fit the needs. In the sea of questions about timing, preachers, liturgy, a mass choir and set-up, I saw one task that seemed straightforward: commissioning the communion ware used to serve the wine and bread. It is tradition for the assembly’s host city to commission a local artist to create chalices and plates that are representative of the area. In Pittsburgh, they were made of glass to highlight the history of glassworks in the area. A previous assembly used pottery designs akin to that of their global mission partners. But this was Detroit. And in Detroit, pottery is synonymous with Pewabic. Certain that this was the easy answer to our need, I agreed to secure the communion ware.

Pewabic Pottery is an institution in Detroit.  Founded by Mary Stratton in 1903, the pottery is famous for its architectural tiles dipped in iridescent glazes that grace countless buildings throughout the United States from the National Shine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., to Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to the hidden jewel in downtown Detroit, the Guardian Building. My husband and I had schemed about how we could one day install the iconic Pewabic tiles in our own kitchen. If anything would say “Detroit,” it would be chalices and plates made at Pewabic Pottery.A few days and a few phone calls later, it turned out that my beloved Pewabic was not the sure-fire solution I had hoped for… at least not quite. Because of its status in the ceramic world and because Pewabic only employs one potter who hand-throws pots, the cost for ordering 150 sets of communion ware was simply out of our reach.  General Assembly provides funds to secure the ware, but it also assumes that money will be recouped through sales of the finished sets to commissioners and participants at GA. Realizing that my simple task had just taken a turn, I began scrambling to find another option.  Friends offered contacts who do pottery, I called art schools in the area and even dreamed up metal versions of a chalice that would draw on the automotive history of Detroit. My runner-up idea was to host children from area Presbyterian churches at “paint-your-own pottery” shops to get at the local culture in a different way.  But just as I was about to hit the panic button, I talked to another person at Pewabic. She directed me to a potter who works out of the Pewabic studio and sells items in their store. But because the Pewabic label doesn’t appear on his creations, they are a bit more affordable!  Enter Kevin Kwiatkowski.  Raised in Canton and educated in Detroit, Kevin was ready to help create communion ware that reflected the Detroit area and themes of General Assembly.

Chalice (12)By this time, I had a partner in my task, Mary Beth Jones, Director of Music Ministries at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Troy, Michigan. We described our needs to Kevin and he quickly created a number of prototypes. Mary Beth and I drove down to Pewabic to look at his samples. Sitting outside at picnic tables, we discussed what the pottery should evoke when people saw it.  Kevin’s own logo, which he stamped into his finished clay, was a circular swirl. In it, we clearly saw the ripples of a water droplet. This could easily highlight the moderator’s focus on our baptismal identity and the call to discipleship we receive in those waters. Cobo Hall, site of GA, was being renovated to look out on the Detroit River, which was tremendously important in the economic history of the city. The swirling droplet seemed a perfect symbol to suggest our themes, but also common enough to make sense at whatever communion table it might grace after the assembly.

Tray (25)Once we felt comfortable with the thematic elements, we moved on to practical ones.  Mary Beth and I considered how deep and wide the bowl of the chalice needed to be and what the plate should look like. Would the juice run dry too quickly if the bowl was too small? Would people be able to fit their hands inside to touch bread to juice? How tall a lip should the plate have to keep the bread in place? We knew these functional decisions were just as important as the aesthetic ones. Kevin was gracious in considering our needs and designed vessels that exactly met our specifications. He then got to work on making 150 sets of chalices and plates.

As Kevin began to prepare all the pottery, my husband was extended a new call in Louisville, Kentucky. Our move came quicker than expected and meant that my work on the worship planning team was done. Thankfully, Mary Beth continued to lead the project as they came to one of the most important decisions, the color and style of glaze. Kevin prepared several unique glazes for Mary Beth and the team to choose from. The final selection was a translucent glaze with shades of green and blue accented by white specks, drawing on the appearance of the Detroit River.

Chalice & PlateKevin has worked for nearly a year on the project and will deliver all of the communion ware to Cobo Hall on June 13, ready to be used in celebration of the sacrament beginning on June 14. Compared with previous years, the 2014 communion ware will get a workout by being in use every day of the meeting. The sets are available for purchase for $75 each in the assembly bookstore, with pick-up at the close of the meeting. Thanks to a hard-working worship planning team, Mary Beth’s savvy leadership, and a creative artist, communion at General Assembly will be served with a touch of beauty to feed the people in body, soul, and spirit.


Nickel headshotEmma Nickel serves as stated supply pastor of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, Kentucky.  She is passionate about small church ministry, cooking and playing with her cat, Scout.