In Search of the Pope’s Carpenter

A Peruvian immigrant helped build the altar for the first Latin American pope.

Carlos Hernández is finishing his last touches on the altar Pope Francis will use during a Mass this week in Washington, D.C.

We met the 57-year-old carpenter at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Wednesday’s outdoor mass will be broadcast live around the world and is expected to draw 25,000 people.

But Hernández, an immigrant from Peru, seemed relaxed on Friday as he glued a cast-iron cross onto the pulpit he helped build.

“We’re about 95 percent done with the work,” he said in Spanish, working in a corner of the Romanesque-Byzantine-style basilica, where tourists snapped photos of him as they walked by.

Hernández, who works for St. Joseph Carpentry shop, has been working for three months with two other carpenters to build the altar, chair, and pulpit for Wednesday’s Mass. He is also building a tomb for the ashes of Junípero Serra, a Spanish missionary who brought Catholicism to California in the 18th century. The pope will make Serra a saint during the canonization mass.

Hernández, 57, said his family back in Peru is proud of him for doing such an important job. He also worked on the altar that Pope Benedict XVI used during his visit to Washington in 2008. Hernández had worked as a carpenter in Lima, Peru, before moving to the United States with his wife and son 16 years ago.

“This has been such a surprise for me, and I think it’s like a reward for all the sacrifices I have made,” he said.

Hernández struggled for more than a decade to legalize his status. Two years ago he got his green card. It’s an honor to build an altar for Pope Francis, he said, because the pope cares about immigrants like himself.

He and his colleagues worked through the weekend to finish everything in time. On Tuesday, a hydraulic cart will move the 1,200-pound altar outside, where the Mass will be held. Hernández will be sitting in the crowd during the Mass, he said, and he couldn’t wait to see the pope sitting on this chair.

“I don’t know how close I’ll be, but I will be there.”