Holy smokes: New life for old candles

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Aretha Franklin played in the background as Father Kevin J. Larsen, donning a Williams-Sonoma apron, adjusted the stovetop temperature in the rectory kitchen at St. Bernadette Church in Springfield. No, the pastor of St. Bernadette was not whipping up a gourmet dish. He was making candles.

"I've been thinking about doing this for years," said Father Larsen as he stirred melting wax last Friday afternoon. "I decided it was time to do it."

Although he made candles growing up, giving animal- and star-shaped wax creations as gifts, Father Larsen's recent candle-making project is more ambitious. He wants to make new candles out of recycled wax and containers to help St. Bernadette and other Arlington diocesan parishes reduce waste, save money and help needy students.

Candle costs

Candles are ever-present during Catholic liturgies - from the altar candles used throughout the year to paschal candles used during Easter and special occasions such as baptisms and funerals. Most are not fully consumed.

At a certain point, the candle socket prevents the bottom few inches of the candle from burning properly. That leaves lots of unusable stubby candles.

Liturgical candles have been blessed, usually on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also called "Candlemas," Feb. 2. Since they have been blessed, "technically you're supposed to dispose of them in the ground, to bury them," said Father Larsen.

Deciding when and where to bury candles can be difficult, so at a lot of parishes, including St. Bernadette, the candle stubs accumulate into large quantities.

Several hundred pounds of candles fill plastic tubs in the St. Bernadette rectory basement.

"People just don't know what to do with all of them," Father Larsen said.

Unlike altar candles, tabernacle vigil lamps - candles in glass containers that typically are placed within a red or blue glass shell - can burn all the way down. But once the wax is used up, parishes are left with the containers. Ideally they are recycled, but often the glass is just tossed out, said Father Larsen.

A vigil lamp must be burning wherever the Eucharist is reserved in a tabernacle, and some parishes also burn the lamps in front of religious statues.

Replacing the tabernacle vigil candles costs big bucks, Father Larsen said.

Part of their expense is because liturgical candles must be composed of at least 51 percent beeswax, which is more expensive than other kinds of wax.

According to Father Paul F. deLadurantaye, diocesan secretary for religious education and sacred liturgy, beeswax represents sacrifice - the human sacrifice of the extra cost and the bees' sacrifice of labor.

Father Larsen said that beeswax candles also burn cleaner and slower.

Parishes can use up to eight cases of nine, two-week-burning tabernacle vigil candles per year, and at a cost of $170 per case that's $1,360 annually.

An enlightened idea

Father Larsen's vision is to unburden parishes of their old candle stubs and tabernacle containers and recycle them into new tabernacle vigil lamps. For a donation of $100 per case of nine, parishes could receive Father Larsen's rectory-made candles and save hundreds of dollars.

After the cost of materials is covered - including new wicks - the donations would go toward the St. Bernadette tuition assistance fund. Each year, the school gives out $40-50,000 worth of tuition assistance to needy students.

"It's a win-win-win situation," said Father Larsen.

The weak link in the project is getting the word out to parishes, he said. In order for his vision to catch fire, he needs empty tabernacle vigil lamp containers, candle stubs that are at least 51 percent beeswax and parishes that want to use the recycled candles. A few parishes have donated candles and a couple of containers, but without more donations, he said the project will be restricted to just recycling St. Bernadette candles.

So far, Father Larsen has made about 40 candles. Once he gets on a roll, he can make up to a case of nine candles in an hour. If the recycling project takes off, he has ideas to expand the operation, including hiring high schoolers to pick up and drop off the candles at churches.

"It's kind of fun; I enjoy doing it, but I can't continue without more donations and interest," he said.

On the recent afternoon in the rectory kitchen, Father Larsen measures and cuts new wicks and carefully centers them in the glass containers. Centering the wick is "most critical to the process," he said. "If the wick gets too close to the sides of the glass it can crack it."

With wick in place, Father Larsen slowly pours the melted recycled wax - a warm yellow color from the beeswax - into the glass jars. As the wax cools, it turns from clear yellow to creamy white.

Once cooled, the old wax has another chance to play a small part in the sacred liturgy - to be blessed, lit and to burn again.

Recycle your candles

To donate tabernacle vigil lamp containers and candle stubs made from 51 percent beeswax or more and to obtain recycled candles for your parish, contact Fr. Kevin Larsen at 703/451-8576 or frkevin@stbernpar.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014