THE PRIVILEGED ALTAR
Under the consecrated stone of Old Saint Mary’s high altar lies the relics of bones and a vase of blood of St. Martura (Latin for martyr), an unidentified first century Christian martyr. These relics were taken from her tomb in the Catacombs of St. Priscilla in Rome on January 24, 1844.
On the Feast of the Annunciation, of that same year, they were solemnly placed by Bishop John Baptist Purcell under the main altar for public veneration. There they have rested undisturbed for 154 years.
On September 14, 1879, Pope Leo XIII granted a special spiritual concession to Old St. Mary’s Church. He gave the high altar “privileged” status. A privileged altar is one to which the Holy See has attached a plenary indulgence applicable only to the souls in Purgatory. Every time a Requiem Mass is offered on such a privileged altar a plenary indulgence is gained for the deceased for whom the Mass is offered.
Painted on the base of the high altar, below the glass reliquary are the words, altare privilegiatum, “privileged altar.”