By Megan Simmermeyer, Communications co-op
For many, the holiday season means unearthing the Christmas tree from the attic, or wrapping up in layers of warm coats to go find a live one. Then, the tree is decorated, gifts placed beneath to be opened on Christmas Day. And on Christmas Eve, churches around the globe are filled with parishioners to celebrate Mass in honor of Christ’s birth. Sisters Benedicta Mahoney, Irene Mraz, and Mary Ann Flannery shared a few of the Sisters of Charity’s own holiday traditions—some familiar, like Christmas trees and midnight Mass, and others unique.
For her part, S. Benedicta recalls years of music, decorations, and gifts. She remembers when Novice Sisters would wake early on Christmas morning and sing carols throughout the halls for the older Sisters and postulants—songs like “Listen to the Choir,” which heralded the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Many of the Sisters’ sponsored ministries, like Seton High School and Mount St. Joseph University, celebrated with music, too, each hosting Christmas and holiday programs to commemorate the season.
Of course, what is Christmas time without the tree and decorations, too? During her early years with the Community, S. Benedicta said there was a tradition called the Poverty Tree. Novices and postulants would create their own Christmas tree by gathering branches, making “snow” for the empty branches, and decorating them with homemade ornaments. Later, the professed Sisters would present them with a real, green tree on Christmas.
In addition to the Poverty Tree, S. Benedicta shared memories of the many other Christmas decorations she experienced over the years, like the trees in the Motherhouse and the decorations adorning the chapel. She remembers S. Thomas More Rybarsk who loved to decorate, and in her memory, one of her decorated trees is displayed each year in the Motherhouse dining rooms. The Sisters have a collection of nativity sets, or crèches, that they display throughout the Motherhouse, as well, and each has a history.
When thinking about the gifts that often accompany a tree, S. Benedicta recalls her years at Guardian Angels in Detroit, Michigan. After midnight Mass at his own parish, every year, the pastor would come to the Sisters’ chapel for a later service, which would be followed by breakfast at nearly two in the morning. During her second year, in 1946, she remembers the pastor’s gift to the Sisters was a ballpoint pen, an item of historic significance at that time.
However, S. Benedicta said that the pastor’s gift was not the only one she remembers. In a particularly memorable gift exchange during her first year, she and the four Sisters she lived with drew names. Her housemate S. Bernadette Haley was in charge of writing the names on the slips of paper and placing them in the basket. When it was her turn, S. Benedicta drew S. Bernadette. Suspicious, she asked another of her housemates who she had drawn. The woman also had S. Bernadette. It turned out that S. Bernadette had written her name on every slip and tricked them all!
In addition to S. Benedicta’s fond Christmas recollections, Sisters Irene and Mary Ann shared their own memories of their time as Vincentian Sisters of Charity in Bedford, Ohio, most notably the Christmas Eve celebration, during which the Sisters would gather in the chapel for a special service with prayers and hymns. After, they would have a candlelit procession to a room adjacent to the chapel, where thousands of angels, lit by the glow of more candles, hovered around the crèche. The Sisters sang hymns as Jesus was placed in the manger and a blessing was said over the Nativity.
Following the procession, the Sisters continued to sing and ring bells as they made their way to the dining room for their evening meal where each place was set with a wafer with the nativity printed on it. After asking God to bless their meal, the Sisters drizzled honey over the wafer, broke it, and shared the pieces with their neighbor. As they shared, they gave their neighbor a Christmas wish.
The majority of Christmas Eve was spent in the dining room, sharing conversation and the joy of each other’s presence. They ate mushroom soup with sauerkraut and noodles, a delicious main course, and of course, dessert. For appetizers, they had bobalki, which are small baked balls of poppy seed or nut. Later, after they had eaten their fill and said grace following the meal, the Sisters departed for their rooms, for many Sisters would go home to their families to celebrate the feast.
S. Mary Ann said of the holiday traditions, she remembers the Christmas Eve supper most of all, as it honored the Slovak traditions of most of their members, and it was a chance for the Community to gather and spend the evening together. If a Sister had to be absent from the dinner, called Vilija, she had to obtain permission from the major superior, as it was an important celebration for the Bedford Sisters.
Similarly, S. Irene remembers Christmas Eve just as fondly, as well as how beautiful all their Christmas decorations were and how special their nativity ceremony was. She said the angels, which the Mother Superiors had received as donations over the years and which were from different countries as well as makes and models, are currently housed at Light of Hearts Villa in Bedford, and can still be viewed today.
The memories of the Christmas season are ones that persist for years—whether it is the decorations or Christmas trees, the old traditions or celebrating Mass. The holidays are a time for enjoying one another’s company and counting our blessings, as the Sisters’ stories can attest.