Our Lady of Guadalupe Now Appearing at a Target Store Near You

Candles at a local Target Store.

You can’t be in Los Angeles very long before you bump into the iconic image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Or at least, that’s the way it used to be.

The stretch of Pasadena Freeway Highway 110 that I travel frequently between Pasadena and Los Angeles was for years home to a particularly large and garish mural painted on the side of a building along a frontage road, with only a raw chain link fence separating God’s Mother and the merciless humanity that flowed by each day.

When I decided to write this article for The Catholic Gene on Our Lady of Guadalupe in Los Angeles, I thought I would have no problem locating the freeway virgin and  several other popular renditions. Alas, times change. Freeway improvements and a new sound wall now obscure sections of neighborhood streets.

I’ve lost Our Lady somewhere between Highland Park and Dodger Stadium.

Angelenos’ affection for Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the oldest traditions in our rather recent history, with roots in the desert near Mexico City.

On his way to Mass on December 9, 1531, an Indian peasant named Juan Diego was passing near Tepeyac when he heard music and saw a vision of a beautiful young woman. She spoke to him in his own language, identifying herself as the Virgin Mary, and expressed her wish that a shrine be built at the place she appeared. She told Juan Diego to go to the Bishop in Mexico City and share the story of the vision and her wishes for a chapel.

Juan Diego was unable to persuade the Bishop of the truth of his story, and returned to the hill where he saw the Virgin a second time. She told him to return to the Bishop, who then asked Juan Diego to bring him a sign from the Lady.

Then, life intervened. Juan Diego’s uncle became seriously ill and Juan Diego was unable returned to Tepeyac until December 12. What he saw must have been truly astounding. The lady waited for him and assured him that his uncle would recover. When she heard the Bishop’s request for a sign, she directed Juan Diego to the summit of the hill where he found a wealth of fresh flowers in an area where they had never been known to grow. He gathered the blooms in his cloak and carried the bundle to the Bishop.

But, when Juan Diego opened his cloak to show the Bishop the flowers sent as a sign from the lady, the surprise was not the blossoms as much the colored image of the Virgin depicted exactly as Juan Diego had described her.

The image itself bore a striking resemblance to an Indian woman, not a European or Spaniard, with symbolism that would have been familiar to 16th century Aztecs. Blue referenced divinity and the gods; the rays of the sun emanating from her figure indicate her superiority to the great sun god; she stands on the moon, and hence the moon god. Her rose-covered dress would have been worn by an Aztec princess.

The Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as she appeared on Juan Diego's cloak.

By appearing to Juan Diego, an Indian convert to Catholicism, Our Lady of Guadalupe became the rally-cry and devotion for millions of native people ready to turn away from the cruel Aztec religion to a loving and accepting deity. Her insistence that an Indian convert should act as her messenger sent a powerful message to the disenfranchised natives of Mexico.

Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to inspire devotion throughout the world, especially in the Americas. The image is now displayed behind the altar at La Basilica de la Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe in what is now La Villa, Mexico City.

Closer to home, at least to me in Pasadena, California, Our Lady of Guadalupe is everywhere. Not surprisingly, she is the patron saint of “little businesses” and often found adorning corner markets in the barrio. Her image on bumper stickers guards the family car, on skin speaks of commitment, and in front-lawn shrines shares devotion.

Our Lady is the friend of the underdog, the alienated, and according to an article by Judith Dupre, this modern Virgin Mary has become the symbol of gangsters, pro-lifers, and artists.

Last Sunday after Mass I recruited my husband to join me on a pilgrimage of sorts – to see if we could find those neighborhood icons of Our Lady of Guadalupe that keep flashing through my memory.

Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel at St. Andrew Church in Old Pasadena.

I said a prayer in the Our Lady of Guadalupe chapel in our church, St. Andrew in Old Pasadena, and we headed out on our quest. We had no luck along the freeway frontage roads. We cruised Hispanic neighborhoods without success. But after a burger-break in nearby Eagle Rock, Our Lady smiled.

Our Lady adorns a tortilla factory in Eagle Rock, near Los Angeles.

Restaurant in Highland Park.

Side of restaurant building with mural of Aztec symbols and Juan Diego kneeling before vision of Our Lady.

More on Our Lady of Guadalupe

Celebrating St. Nicholas


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Soon that jolly, white-haired man dressed in red will visit your house at night and deliver some treats to the children that have been good.  In fact, the night he comes is tonight!  Wait, did you think I meant Santa Claus?  No, it’s time for the visit from St. Nicholas!

1914 St. Nicholas Magazine Calendar, St Nicholas Center Collection

St. Nicholas lived during the 4th Century in a Greek territory that today is Turkey.  Many legends exist about his life.  Most agree that he came from a wealthy family.  After becoming orphaned, Nicholas used his wealth to help the poor and needy.  He devoted his life to God and became a bishop in the Church.  He continued to perform acts of charity, usually in secret, and he was known throughout the region for his goodness.  In giving gifts, he asked that the recipients do the same to those in need.  By the time Bishop Nicholas died, he was known as a miracle-worker, gift-giver, and a true man of God who cared about others.

There are many stories associated with St. Nicholas and the good dees he performed. One of my favorites involves a poor man with three daughters. The father was too poor to provide a dowry for any of his daughters much less all three – without a dowry, the woman likely would never marry and possibly be sold into slavery. The bishop Nicholas secretly threw a bag of gold in the home’s open window on three nights.  The bag landed in a stocking or boot prompting a tradition that exists to this day of either setting out boots on St. Nicholas’ Eve to receive gifts or hanging stockings by the fireplace for Santa Claus to fill.

St. Nicholas died on December 6 in the year 343 A.D. One of the most fascinating facts about Nicholas is that his bones which were buried in the cathedral church exude a watery substance – to this day.  The substance is called “manna” and is believed to have healing properties.

It became customary around the world to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th, by doing what he had done.  On the evening of December 5th, gifts would be left in secret to those in need, presumably left by the saint himself.  He would wander throughout the country and leave gifts for children.  In fact, some children would leave food for St. Nicholas’ means of travel, a donkey.

Many countries continue the celebration of St. Nicholas Day. In Germany, the area of Bavaria where my great-grandparents came from celebrated the arrival of Sankt Nikolaus. He would arrive in his bishop’s regalia with a miter and crozier and ask the children if they had been good.  Families cleaned the house and children cleaned their rooms in anticipation of his arrival!  Boots were left out, and the kindly saint would leave a gift to those who were good – or coal to those who were not.

In Poland, St. Nicholas was called Sw. Mikołaj. He also visited dressed as a bishop and an angel to help him with his sleigh full of goodies, which were usually sweets such as cookies or fruit.  He also encouraged children to be on their best behavior.  He sometimes returned on Christmas Eve with gifts the children requested in letters.

I laughed when I learned that Italy celebrates San Nicola by recalling the time they stole his earthly remains in the 11th Century and brought them to Italy.  It’s not like it sounds though, for they had a good reason!  (Though relic stealing was quite popular back then…)  The celebration of his “arrival” to Bari is celebrated in May, but he also visits children with goodies on the evening of December 5th.

So, what happened to St. Nicholas and the celebration of his life? Did Nicholas “become” Santa Claus?  Or did Santa “replace” the bishop-saint? In America, the blame gets distributed on the usual suspects: the Puritans, the advertising industry, and the media. One could argue that he slowly  evolved into Santa. I don’t have anything against Santa – in fact, he’s been quite good to me over the years!  But in reading about St. Nicholas and the traditions that our ancestors celebrated made me wish he had the same PR man as Mr. Claus. What parent wouldn’t admire a guy who gets children to clean their rooms and be good? Sure, Santa wants you to be good, too, but St. Nicholas was more about helping those in need and sharing what we have with others – compassion vs. consumption.

St. Nicholas Giving Alms by Jan Heinsch

Over the years the religious aspects of the man and the events surrounding the gift-giving seemed to have disappeared as well.  But, we can always revive the St. Nicholas tradition in our own families by spreading the news and telling the stories about him.  Nick’s stories are even more fascinating than Santa’s stories!  Many countries have similar celebrations and traditions of the saint’s arrival. If you have young children in your family, I encourage you to learn the St. Nicholas tradition from your ancestors’ countries and celebrate the day as they did.

For more information on Saint Nicholas, his history, the evolution of Santa Claus, and how St. Nicholas Day is celebrated throughout the world, visit the wonderful site called The Saint Nicholas Center – discovering the truth about Santa Claus.  In fact, they have reconstructed what he probably looked like — familiar-looking, isn’t he?

St. Nicholas, pray for us!

O God, Who didst adorn blessed Nicholas, the bishop, with miracles unnumbered, grant, we beseech Thee, that by his merits and prayer we may be delivered from the fire of hell. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

~ Collect from the Mass of St. Nicholas

Anticipating Advent



Europe 2003 December 1204web

While Christmas is joyfully celebrated by Christians of all varieties, the option of celebrating the weeks before the big holiday have only caught on with Protestants in the last few decades. I didn’t discover Advent until I was in college, and figured any religion that could make Christmas into a four week holiday (longer, if you count Epiphany!) was worth serious consideration.

Leave it to the Catholics to know how to plan a party. First, the colors change. The banners, altar cloths, and priests’ garb changes to violet, white, then gold. In fact, the Church declares that Advent, the season of anticipation, is the beginning of the Church year. Mass begins with the lighting of the Advent candle as a reminder of the new liturgical season, sort of like Black Friday kicking off the holiday shopping season.

When my sons were young we set up a small Advent wreath to light at home and a German Advent Calendar with little paper doors to open each day until December 25th. You never know what little things will lead to. . .

Twenty years later the four of us were in Germany for Christmas discovering yet another Advent tradition at the Weinachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt, a holiday street market with roots in the Middle Ages usually held in the marketplace or on the steps of the local church. The Dresden Weinachtsmarkt is credited as being the oldest market (from 1434), but Vienna claims its Bautzen market of 1294 was the forerunner.

At churches throughout Germany. Austria, and Alsace, the First Sunday Of Advent marks the opening of the Weinachtsmarkt, The Christmas version of our Southern California church fiesta.

We stumbled on our first Weinachtsmarkt somewhere off the autobahn from Munich to Freiberg after a mind-and -body- numbing nonstop flight from Los Angeles. We pulled off the highway in desperate search for a reststop and refreshment, and suddenly found ourselves in front of a Catholic church where the universal sounds of  of hammers and electric drills filled the air. A closer look showed that wooden stalls were being assembled, grills heated, and gluwein set to simmer.
Europe 2003 December 1201web
Europe 2003 December 1203web
We were first to sample the hot mulled drink and sausages, warming our hands around the cups as we watched assorted animals being led into the square for the Nativity stall. Children helped throw the hay for bedding, and stroked the animals. In the short time we were there, stringed lights came to life, the sound of hammers gave way to singing, and more people filled the market.
Europe 2003 December 1211webEurope 2003 December 1216web
In Freiburg im Breisgau where our son lived we discovered double Weinachtsmarkts. The large central fair on the Rathausplatz (town square), and a smaller one set up in front of a smaller church.
Europe 2003 December 1213web
Of course, the main attraction at these events is the food — sizzling wursts in all varieties, steaming mugs of hot spiced Glüwein, stollen, candies, lebkuchen. Stalls offered assorted Bavarian Christmas wares for sale, from handmade wooden cheese boards to knit scarves, to carved wooden ornaments.
Europe 2003 December 1546web
Europe 2003 December 1539web
In Strasbourg, we found the Alsatian version held in the square outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg where Croque Monsier and soft macaroons were the snacks of choice instead of the traditional Bavarian wurst und .

In anticipation of Advent, I am dusting off our home Advent wreath and setting up the little German calendar. The Glühwein is already steaming.
Traditional Glühwein (Glow Wine)
1 bottle nice full red wine
1 lemon
12 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 – 1/3 cup sugar
Pour the wine and sugar into a large saucepan and heat gently; do not boil. Cut the lemon in half and stick the cloves into one half. Thinly slice the other half.  Add the lemon with cloves, and lemon slices, and cinnamon stick. Heat slowly until steaming hot. Traditionally served in glass mugs.

Christmas Carols

The Christmas season began this past Sunday on the First Sunday of Advent.  As we await the joyful coming of our Savior, some of The Catholic Gene authors reminisce about their favorite Christmas carols.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Lisa Alzo ~ I have chosen my favorite carol, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. The carol is written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, an early leader of the Methodist church. I know this may seem a bit odd to reference this song on a blog called “The Catholic Gene,” but nevertheless, it is my favorite religious carol. With its numerous scriptural references, the carol speaks of the mystery of the incarnation of Christ.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.” Luke 2:13-14

The tune that’s almost always used today was composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, for his cantata Festgesang, written to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and his invention of the printing press.

While it is a religious carol, one of my favorite versions of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is the one sung by the whole Peanuts gang at the end of Charles Schultz’ animated Christmas special A Charlie Brown Christmas.   It is a song of joy, and that is why it is my favorite.

The Little Drummer Boy

Steve Danko ~ When I was young, my favorite religious Christmas song was “The Little Drummer Boy.”  It’s not exactly a song I would expect to hear at Midnight Mass, but it held a special relevance to me since it tells the story of a young boy who thinks he has nothing to offer the Christ Child.  I could relate to that!  The song, originally titled “Carol of the Drum,” was written in 1941 by Katherine K. Davis who claimed that it was based on a traditional Czech carol.  The popularity of the song increased greatly when the Von Trapp Family Singers recorded the song in 1955, shortly before they retired.  Even now, I can remember playing “The Little Drummer Boy” over and over on my family’s little portable record player to the point where my mother would come over to me and gently say, “Let’s listen to something else now, Stephen.”

O Holy Night

Craig Manson ~ My favorite Christmas song is “O Holy Night.”  It is based on the French poem, “Cantique de Noel.”  Its transcendent melody and lyrics convey the joy of Jesus’ coming in an almost unearthly way. This song sounds great in any language, and anyone filled with true gladness can sing it (well, there is that HIGH note in the last stanza)! I suspect that even the skeptic or nonbeliever can’t help but be moved to some degree by this piece of music. My favorite version is Nat King Cole’s 1960 rendition. See it here:

Obsessed audiophiles may be interested in this 1914 recording of Cantique Noelhttp://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/mp3s/0000/0374/cusb-cyl0374d.mp3.

Donna Pointkouski ~ My favorite Christmas song is also “O Holy Night”.  I had heard the song countless times over the years, but I remember one evening when, for the very first time, one line jumped out at me and I truly listened to it for the first time in my life.  The line that struck me was: Long lay the world in sin and error, pining, ’til He appeared and the soul felt its worth. My soul (and my eyes) flooded as I understood the meaning of those words like never before, and the beautiful, wondrous mystery of the Incarnation, the true meaning of Christmas, became clear to me.  I think that song sums it up rather well!

Adeste Fidelis

Jasia ~ My favorite religious Christmas song would have to be “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”, aka “Adeste Fideles“. The reason for that is because it’s such an uplifting song! I can remember singing it in church every Christmas as a child and as an adult. It’s the song we sang as the opening hymn while the altar boys and the priest made their way down the aisle from the back of the church to the altar. Everyone in the pews would stand up and sing the old familiar lyrics with joy and goodwill in their hearts. Even those who don’t normally sing at Mass (like me) would sing their hearts out. For me it marks the beginning of the most wonderful Mass of the year!

O come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:

O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of Heaven above!
Glory to God
In the highest:

Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
Born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father,
Now in flesh appearing!

What’s your favorite Christmas carol?

The Saint Andrew Chrismas Novena

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

The Saint Andrew Christmas Novena was introduced to me by my sister when I was quite young.  Usually, a novena is prayed for nine days but, as in this case, it can also refer to a prayer that is repeated over any number of days.

Saint Andrew

Image of Saint Andrew from the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Amalfi, Italy

SOURCE:  Image of Saint Andrew from the Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Amalfi, Italy (Amalfi, Campania, Italy); photographed by Stephen J. Danko on 08 August 2011.

Although the novena is called the Saint Andrew Christmas Novena, the prayer is addressed not to Saint Andrew, but to God the Father Himself, requesting Him to grant our requests in honor of the birth of His Son.  The connection to Saint Andrew is that the novena begins on the Saint Andrew’s feast day and continues through Christmas.

To participate in the novena, recite the beautiful prayer at the top of this article 15 times each day from the Feast of Saint Andrew (today, November 30) through Christmas Day.

As I mentioned at the start, I was introduced to the Saint Andrew Christmas Novena by my sister when I was very young.  In the weeks before Christmas, I recited the prayer 15 times each night after I was in bed, before I fell asleep.  My motivation in reciting the novena was somewhat selfish, though.  My sister had told me that, if I completed the novena, my wish would come true.  I don’t remember what I wished for, but it probably for something I really didn’t need.

This year, however, I have a special reason to participate in the Saint Andrew Christmas Novena.  Will you pray with me?

A Polish Advent Custom – Roraty


I come from a long line of Polish Catholics. I’ve long been interested in how my ancestors celebrated the various holidays, saint’s feast days, and other holy days. The Catholic Poles had many, many religious ceremonies and prayer services unheard of here in the United States or elsewhere in the world. Poland has long been a country that struggled for peace, was dominated and taken over by its neighbors, and suffered when those neighbors tried to extinguish its very culture. Through it all, the strong faith of the people of this predominantly Catholic country has prevailed. It’s enlightening to take a look at the religious rites that were and still are practiced in Poland, the land of my ancestors. Here is an example of a Polish Catholic prayer service for the Advent season.

A traditional Polish observance of the season of Advent differs greatly from the heavily commercialized time before Christmas in this country. It is a time of reflection and spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. The word advent comes from the Latin adventus which means the coming. We await the coming of the Messiah not only in the flesh but also for His second coming as Judge at the end of the world. Hope is the dominant characteristic of the season of Advent. There is a focus during the season on our longing for God’s grace and His friendship. It is understood that parties, weddings, and other boisterous events would be an obstacle to the search for God’s grace and building that friendship, and so they are avoided. Advent is also a time for reconciliation with God through the Sacrament of Penance.

Throughout advent many people in Poland participate in an early morning Mass called Roraty. It begins just before sunrise in almost complete darkness in the church. The name roraty comes from the ancient Latin chant that is sung to begin the service: Rorate Coeli, de super; et nubes pluant justum – O Heavens, drop down your dew from on high and may the Just One be rained by the clouds. The words of the ancient hymn are a plea for God’s gift of His Son. As the hymn is sung candles are gradually lit in the dark church. Roraty is a kind of daily Advent vigil ceremony. The people wait in darkness not only for the rising of the sun but ultimately for the return of the Son of God, so beautifully symbolized by dawn’s first light.

The roraty service has a definite Marian dimension to it as does the entire season of Advent. In the sanctuary is found one special candle that is more predominate than the others used in the ceremony. It is traditionally decorated with greenery and white ribbon in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who plays and important role in the raining down of the Just One.

The Advent roraty ceremony originated in the 13th century during the reign of King Boleslaw Wstydliwy (the Bashful) who was the husband of St Kinga. According to historical documents, a representative of every social state lit one candle of a specially prepared seven-branch candelabrum in the cathedral at the early morning service, starting with the king. As each man lit his candle he proclaimed: Paratus sum ad adventum Domini/Gotow jestem na pryjscie Pana – I am ready for the coming of the Lord! After the king lit his candle he was followed by the cardinal primate, then a senator, a nobleman, a knight, a townsman and finally the seventh candle was lit by a peasant farmer.

Preparation for the Lord’s coming, both interior and spiritual as well as exterior and temporal is an integral part of a truly Catholic observance of the holy season of Advent.

Many thanks to Rev. Mark A. Borkowski, Associate Pastor, Ss Peter & Paul Catholic Church, Detroit, Michigan, who was kind enough to allow me to share his article with you. 

Below is a video showing a portion of a Roraty service filmed in a village not far from my maternal grandfather’s village in Poland.

Changing the Way We Pray

Liturgy is like a strong tree whose beauty is derived from the continuous renewal of its leaves, but whose strength comes from the old trunk, with solid roots in the ground. ~ Pope Paul VI

Whenever I’m in the midst of lamenting about some unjust change to my personal way of life, my mother always shakes her head and calmly states, “You never did like change.” She’s right, as moms always are. Sometimes it was simple changes that bothered me, like my favorite television show moving to a different night or a good restaurant closing. Other times my life had the bigger changes we all face from time to time: a new subject in school, friends moving away, or a new position at work. No matter how serious or frivolous, I was always a bit reluctant to embrace and accept whatever change came my way.

The comfort I find in routines and rituals is one of the many reasons why the celebration of Mass is special to me. As I hear the familiar words and prayers, I forget whatever is troubling me and lift my heart in prayer. The words are so ingrained in my memory that I don’t need to look at a missal to follow along – I know what’s coming next. The words are familiar; they are comfort food for my soul.

If you knew these things about me, you would assume that today would be very difficult, for the Mass as we know it is changing. The new translation of the Roman Missal begins today, the first Sunday of Advent. The “old” English translation of the Mass will never be used again. But what theoretically should rock my personal ship of comfort in a big way isn’t; I’ve actually been looking forward to the new translation. As a person who enjoys the familiar, my anticipation of such a major change is rather surprising. After all, the order of the Mass that is changing is the only one I have ever heard – I’m too young for the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. But as much as I love the comfortable and routine things about life, I’m also a lover of language. And while comfortable, familiar, routine words and phrases are good, there’s something to be said for improving the good to make it even better.

By now most church-going Catholics have heard about the change, which is giving the English-speaking world a more faithful translation of the former Latin Mass. When I first heard about it a couple of years ago, my first thought was, “Oh, good!” because I recognized that something wasn’t quite right with the words I was so used to saying. When I attended Mass in Italy, I realized that the congregation was not saying what we say in English. The phrase that I understood was the people’s response to the priest’s greeting of “The Lord be with you”. I knew enough of the language to know they were saying “And with your spirit” and I knew that the phrase had been the response in the older Latin Mass. And I wondered…why was our English translation dumbed down?

The language of the Mass that I have come to know wasn’t exactly a word for word translation of the old Latin.  Maybe “dumbed down” is a little harsh – I’m sure the original translators would have said that the language was “more accessible”. In fact, the main complaint about the new translation is that the language is becoming too lofty – too inaccessible for our modern sensibilities and understanding.  But give us a little more credit than that – maybe the words we use for worship should be lofty and majestic! We are worshiping our Creator, not conversing about the latest reality show. Starting today, the words will be more poetic – especially the prayers that the priest will say.

The one familiar phrase I will miss is in the prayer after the Our Father (called the embolism) in which the priest prays to “protect us from all anxiety”. I always liked the sound of that. The new version will ask to keep us “safe from all distress” – an equally comforting thought, but it will sound different to my ears. Change isn’t easy, and I think it will take a long time until I’m used to the new words and know them by heart the way I knew the old.  To get to that point, I’m going to have to do something that we often forget to do when it comes to the “familiar” – I’m going to have to listen.

While it will take a while for me to remember the new words, I will come to appreciate the richness and beauty of the new translation. Some day those of us that grew up with “the old” will either remember this shift to “the new” as a significant change – or the “new” will become so familiar that we won’t ever remember the liturgy having been different.

Take time to listen closely to the “new” liturgy and enjoy some of the poetic imagery. It may sound a little different from what we’re used to, but the words are beautiful. If a skeptical routine-loving change-resister like me can appreciate the fine tuning of the language, anyone can.

10 Reasons to be Thankful for our Catholic Family History

Eucharist (Greek – εὐχαριστία): an action of thanksgiving to God

As genealogists we have much to be thankful for.  The search for our ancestral history often helps to put our own lives into perspective: as we discover the hardships and sorrows that plagued earlier generations, our own can seem much easier to bear.

The Catholic genealogist has even more reasons to be thankful.  At Donna Pointkouski’s suggestion, I’ve made a list of the things that I most appreciate about my Catholic family history.  From the tangible (ancestral photographs, sacramentals, Catholic cemeteries), to the intangible (connections with distant cousins, inspiration provided by the saints), we have a bountiful harvest of gifts before us.  As you observe the Thanksgiving holiday this week, I hope you’ll join with me in celebrating the many blessings of Catholic genealogy. Here are my top ten:

Photographs of family members receiving the sacraments at important milestones in their lives. If it weren’t for her Baptism and First Communion photos, I would have no childhood pictures of my grandmother. I’m very thankful that someone took the time to document those important moments in her life so that I could see her as a child. (She is pictured at left with her cousins and other St. Francis de Sales parish First Communicants in Mount Carbon, Pennsylvania in 1922.)

Sacramentals and holy objects become family treasures when passed down from generation to generation. There is something special about seeing an ancestor’s crucifix on the wall of your own home, holding a great-grandmother’s Rosary, or dressing a new baby in the Baptismal gown that was worn by other newborns in the family tree.

Family Bibles – part family treasure, part genealogical record – are one of every family historian’s most sought after ancestral relics. I was thrilled this year to have a cousin share with me the Douay-Rheims Catholic family Bible in his possession which had belonged to my 3rd great-grandmother, Ann Cowhey. As a genealogist, I was thrilled to see the names and dates recorded on its pages. As a Catholic, it was inspiring to hold the actual Bible owned by my 3rd great-grandmother. I can imagine it sitting in her home throughout the 19th century as she raised her family and relied on her faith to sustain her through hard times.

Sacramental registers allow us to peek into the rites of passage of our Catholic ancestors – Baptism, Matrimony, even Holy Orders. Death registers were also often kept by the Catholic church. In many countries Catholic church registers existed long before any form of civil vital records – or the church records were the civil records (as was the case in Hungary until 1895).  I had a surprise when I discovered my Hungarian-born grandfather’s Baptism register and learned that his birthday was different than the one he had always celebrated!

Catholic cemeteries are the final resting places of many of the Catholic ancestors whose names and stories we learn through our search for family history. There is nothing like walking through a cemetery in search of your ancestors, and coming upon a familiar name on a gravestone. I couldn’t help but tear up during a summer visit to the Irish Catholic St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (shown here) when I discovered the grave of the daughter of my immigrant ancestors who had first settled in the area in the 19th century.  It was moving to stand and pray for her soul where her family had stood as they laid her to rest a century and a half before.

Our ancestors’ places of worship were the fields where the seeds of faith that would someday be passed down to us were first sown.  The Catholic church where several of my children were baptized has just been renovated for the third time in several decades, completely altering the interior of the building.  Yet, the parish where my great-great-grandparents worshipped in Legrad, Croatia is still very much the same as it was in their day.  I haven’t yet visited, but I’m sure I will feel right at home when I finally make the journey to the 300-year-old village church that was host to so many of my family’s special sacramental celebrations.

The fascinating history of the Catholic Church cannot help but be enthralling reading to every Catholic interested in their own family’s story as it played out against the background of history.  The struggles of the Catholic Church in Ireland against the might of the British crown figured largely within the lives of many generations of my Irish family tree.  The strength of the Hungarian and Slavic Catholics as they held up against Turkish occupation kept Europe Catholic and gave my family an inspiring legacy of faith.  If you have Catholic ancestors, chances are that they played a role in or were witnesses to events in Catholic history that read to us today like the stuff of legends.

The saints are the host of holy people that have preceded us in life and now reside in Heaven as the Church Triumphant.  We, the Church Militant, can take inspiration from their lives and ask for their intercession as we strive to join them one day.  We find inspiration in their stories, celebrate their feast days, and name our children after them.  They are like an extended family tree!

A connection to distant cousins is sometimes difficult to establlish when they live in other countries, have different ethnic and cultural traditions, and speak a foreign language. Our shared Catholic faith has allowed me to find common ground with some members of my extended family in Croatia who are parishioners of my family’s ancestral church. Despite language barriers and an ocean separating us, we have found common ground in the age-old faith of our ancestors.

And the #1 reason to be thankful for our Catholic family history:

The legacy of our beautiful Catholic faith is perhaps the greatest family treasure that a Catholic genealogist can discover. It is a spiritual gift that has been passed down to us, and we are privileged to share it with coming generations.

In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
– Saint Paul (I Thessalonians 5:18)

If you share an interest in Catholic family history and you enjoyed reading this article, please take a moment to write a comment including the things that you are thankful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!

St Cecilia and My Cecilia

My Godmother was my favorite aunt. Cecilia Laska was born November 18, 1912 in Detroit, Michigan. She always went by, “Ceily”, so to me she was “Auntie Ceily”. She was closest in age to my dad and was the 4th child, 2nd daughter, of the 11 children of Jozef Laska and Karolina Lipa.

Ceily was a diamond among stones. She was the cultured one in the family and had refined tastes. She was the one who appreciated fine art (and had reproductions hanging in her home), music (the only one in the family to own a musical instrument), shopped at better stores and wore the nicest clothes money could buy. She even had a signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5. Whenever I smell that scent I always think of her.

Ceily Laska Sagovac, 1949

As a child I was fascinated by Auntie Ceily. I idolized her like a Hollywood movie star. I thought I was the luckiest kid on earth to have her for my Godmother. She was very good to me in the material sense but more importantly she was always kind to me. She made a point of talking to me even when there were other adults around. And she never missed an occasion to give me a gift… birthdays, Christmas, Easter, First Holy Communion, graduation. She always remembered me and I adored her. Sadly, Auntie Ceily died of lung cancer in 1989 but she will live in my heart forever.

Today, November 22, is the Feastday of St Cecilia. I’ve no doubt that my Auntie Ceily was named for St Cecilia. It was common for Poles and Americans of Polish descent to name their children after the saint whose feastday was closest to the day of their birth. It’s interesting that my Auntie Ceily and St Cecilia had some things in common too.

It is believed that St Cecilia was born in the 2nd or 3rd century AD in Rome although the exact dates of her birth and martyrdom are unknown. It’s said she was an only child born to wealthy, Christian, educated parents but promised in marriage to a pagan Roman, Valerian, when she was just a young child. Reports of her life differ from one source to another but most agree she was cultured and came from a privileged background.

Painting of St Cecilia done in 1606

A story is told of how Cecilia prayed to God and the saints to protect her virginity and after her wedding to Valerian she told him she was protected by the angels and saints. He then asked her to show him the angel protecting her. She sent him to Pope Urban (223-230) who baptized/converted him and when he returned he found Cecilia praying in a chapel and an angel with flaming wings nearby. Valerian and Cecilia were discovered in that chapel by Valerian’s brother and he was so awed by what he saw that he too converted.

Some time after that, Valerian and his brother were put to death by the Roman prefect. Then, Cecilia too was ordered to be put to death but not before she made arrangements to have her home converted into a church. As the story goes, Cecilia was first sentenced to death by steaming but she survived that. Then she was sentenced to die of beheading. Three attempts were made to behead her before her executioner gave up and fled in fear. It is said that she lingered for three days, baptizing many during that time, until she bled to death.

At some point, (some sources say when she was about to be married others say when she was on her deathbed) Cecilia “sang or heard heavenly music in her heart”. That image caught on and she was forever more known as the patron saint of music, especially church music, and musical instruments. In paintings and art work she is most often portrayed with an organ or violin.

My Auntie Ceily was no St Cecilia but I find it intriguing that she was the only one in her poor immigrant family who lived a cultured life, like the saint she was named for. And the man she married, I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a pagan but he wasn’t Catholic and she married him in a civil ceremony much to the chagrin of her parents who were devout Catholics. I’m not sure if he converted to Catholicism later in life or not but after 20 years together their marriage was finally blessed in a Catholic church. And lastly, Ceily owned first a piano and later an organ. She was the only one in the family to do so. I don’t recall her ever playing either the piano or the organ but I remember plunking away on those ivory keys when we visited her home.

Many blessings to you on St Cecilia Day!

Saint Rafał Kalinowski

Back in October 2007, I traveled to Lithuania to spend a week with my relatives.  My cousins Liliana, Aidas, and Vitas showed me a side of Lithuania I never would have seen on my own.

One day, while walking through the capital city of Vilnius, Liliana brought me to Vilnius University, the oldest university in the Baltic States and Liliana’s alma mater.  Within the walls of the university stood St. John’s Church (Šv. Jonų Bažnyčia).

St. John's Church in Vilnius

St. John’s Church in Vilnius

SOURCE:  St. John’s Church in Vilnius (Vilnius, Lithuania); photographed by Stephen J. Danko on 21 October 2007.

Saint John’s Church in Vilnius is the place where Saint Rafał Kalinowski was baptized.  Born on 01 September 1835, he was baptized on 09 September 1835 with the name Józef, the second child of the Polish nobles Andrzej (Jędrzej) Kalinowski and Józefa Połońska (m. 1832).  Józef’s brother Wiktor (b. 1833) had been born in Vilnius two years earlier.

Birth and Baptismal Record of Józef Kalinowski - 1835

Birth and Baptismal Record of Józef Kalinowski – 1835

SOURCE: Šv. Jonų Bažnyčia (Vilnius, Wilno Gubernia, Russian Empire), “Vilniaus Šv. Jonų RKB gimimo metrikų knyga [Church Registry Books of St. John's Church, Vilnius],” page 104, entry 226, Józef Kalinowski, 09 September 1835; digital images, ePaveldas (http://www.epaveldas.lt/vbspi/biRecord.do?biExemplarId=30557&psl=209 : accessed 19 November 2011).

Young Józef’s mother died within a few days of his birth.  Józef’s father married Wiktoria Połońska (m. 1838), the sister of his deceased wife Józefa.  Wiktoria gave birth to three children:  Emilia (b. 1840), Karol (b. 1841), and Gabriel (b. 1845).  When Józef was nine years old, his stepmother Wiktoria died.  Józef’s father married again, this time to Zofia Puttkamer (m. 1848).  (Zofia was the daughter of Maria Wereszczak, the first great love of famed Polish/Lithuanian poet Adam Mickiewicz).  Andrzej and Zofia had four children:  Maria (b. 1848), Aleksander (b. 1851), Monika (b. 1851), and Jerzy (b. 1859).

At the time Józef was born, Vilnius was part of the Wilno Gubernia of the Russian Empire.  He attended university in St. Petersburg and, after graduation, Józef was appointed a lieutenant in the corps of engineers in Russia.  His resigned his commission with the Russian military in 1863 and joined the insurgents against the Russian government in the January Uprising.  After the failed uprising, Józef was condemned to death, a sentence that was commuted to ten years of hard labor in Siberia.

After his release from Siberia, Józef joined the Carmelite Order in Graz, Austria where he took the religious name Rafał (Raphael).  Brother Rafał traveled to Györ, Hungary to complete his studies and was ordained to the priesthood in Czerna, Poland where he was appointed prior.  Finally, Rafał was appointed prior and vicar provincial for the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Wadowice, Poland.

Saint Rafał Kalinowski - 1897

Saint Rafał Kalinowski -1897

SOURCE:  Saint Rafał Kalinowski (http://tinyurl.com/7bboj5j : accessed 19 November 2011) citing Praskiewicz, Szczepan T. 1998. Saint Raphael Kalinowski: an introduction to his life and spirituality. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications.

Prayer was the source and guiding principle of Rafał’s life and he worked to instill this philosophy in the Carmelite Order.  Others were drawn to Rafał because of the authenticity of his prayer.

Rafał died in Wadowice on 15 November 1907 and was buried in the convent cemetery.  However, large numbers of pilgrims came to visit his grave, carrying away handfuls of soil.  His remains were moved to a tomb but even that solution did not deter the pilgrims who scratched at the tomb, leaving with bits of plaster.  Finally, his remains were moved to a chapel in Czerna, Poland where they are today.

Rafał Kalinowski was beatified on 23 June 1983 and canonized on 17 November 1991 by Pope John Paul II.  That Pope John Paul II would beatify and canonize Rafał Kalinowski is quite fitting.  Eighteen years after Rafał Kalinowski died in Wadowice, Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, was born in the same village.

Saint Rafał Kalinowski’s feast is celbrated on November 19.


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