The Value of a Catholic School Education

Today kicks off the first day of Catholic Schools Week 2012, (January 29-February 5).  The theme is: Catholic Schools – Faith. Academics. Service. In order to Catholic Schools Week, I thought I would write a post about my 12 years of Catholic education.

For grades one through eight I attended Duquesne Catholic School (no longer open).  This school was made up three different schools in three different buildings: Holy Name (grades 1-3), St. Joseph’s (grades 4-6), and Holy Trinity (grades 7 and 8).

Yearbook for Duquesne Catholic School 1976-1977; Owner: Lisa Alzo, for private use

After Junior High “graduation” I then attended Serra Catholic High School.

My father also attended Holy Trinity (he called it “Hunky Tech”–that was because it was the school of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Duquesne, now in West Mifflin, PA–which was identified as the “Slovak” church). My mother, however, was Greek Catholic, so when she was young she had to attend the Duquesne public schools. Dad did not have the chance to go to a Catholic High School and attended Duquesne High School. My aunt, Sr. M. Camilla Alzo, who belonged to the Blessed Sacrament of the Incarnate Word order, taught at the school for a few years even though her home convent was in Victoria, Texas. I shared her story in a previous post.

Holy Trinity School (a.k.a. "Hunky Tech"), Duquesne, PA, 1941. From personal photo collection of Lisa Alzo, held for private use

Classroom of Sr. M. Camilla Alzo at Holy Trinity School, Duquesne, PA, 1941; From personal photo collection of Lisa Alzo, held for private use

My parents did not want to send me to the public schools and felt strongly that I receive a Catholic education, and they made the sacrifices necessary to pay for me to have this opportunity. And so off I went to first grade at Holy Name (in 2005 the school was demolished). I was very sad when I saw pictures of this event (see below). I met my first best friend there in that school, and my first favorite teacher, Sister “K”. I always loved going to school at Holy Name.

Holy Name School, Photo courtesy of Jim Hartman, April 2005.

So, what did I learn from my 12 years in Catholic school? Actually, quite a lot. First and foremost I learned respect.  My parents taught me how to respect myself, and how to show respect for others–especially my elders–even in times when I might not agree with them. The nuns and teachers in school reinforced this lesson. On my first day of school, my mother told me, “You are to listen the nuns. Pretend they are me. If you misbehave, I WILL know about it, and they have my permission to punish you.  Then, you will be in trouble when you get home too.” I was SO afraid to disobey those nuns! The majority of my classmates were too from what I can recall. Sure, there were those who were a bit ornery or always seemed to be in trouble. People may frown upon this “fear factor” today, but one thing is for certain:  I  never remember having to worry that someone might bring a gun in and shoot everyone, or have a bomb, etc.

I also learned discipline and how to apply it both to my work, and my personal life. I believe my quality of education was much higher in the Catholic schools. Our classes were smaller and the teachers, for the most part, truly cared about their students, and even more than 30 years later, they will remember you. I found some of my old report cards–very interesting to read. I received one “bad” report–in 1977-78–in Math (this is not surprising because to this day “I don’t do Math!  My English grades were always better!).  The teacher wrote that I was “getting careless in my work…and not concentrating.”  Since a parent had to sign the report card and could make comments, my mother, who was not happy, did sign it but requested an interview with the teacher.  My mother wrote: “I will not tolerate this kind of work from Lisa.  What can I do to help her?  This is the first bad report since she has been in school.  I’m very disappointed in her and her Dad is too.”

Talk about tough love! You can bet that I did better after that report!  I did improve my grades for the next grading period. Mom was a stickler when it came to school.  Very strict. My Dad not so much; he cared, but he let my Mom handle it. It was not fun at the time, but I appreciate my mother pushing me to do my best. It has provided me with the strong work ethic I still have today.  I went on to be an honor student in high school, even winning three awards for being an “Outstanding Student” in Biology, English, and Psychology!  Out of the three, the Psychology award surprised me the most, but the priest who taught the subject said he gave the award solely on merit and that the papers I was writing for his course were college level papers and how my mother should send me to Harvard.  Of course, my mother, the ever frugal Slovak, asked “And, how do you suggest we pay for Harvard?”  He suggested scholarships, etc.  I didn’t apply to Harvard, but I did graduate Magna Cum Laude from West Virginia Wesleyan College where I went on to receive several senior awards, including the outstanding student in the English department. I furthered my education by earning a Masters in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.

This past November I was truly honored that one of my former Duquesne Catholic School teachers (Mrs. “Y”) attended MY lecture at the Pitt Slovak festival. We had been corresponding for a few years by e-mail after she spotted a couple of my books in the local bookstore. It was such a thrill to see her again and to have her tell me how proud she is of me for the work I am doing with genealogy/family history.  A few months ago, I received an e-mail from another teacher from my Duquesne Catholic days congratuling me on my work. I also keep in touch with several of my former high school teachers.

Of course, religious education was also a major part of the Catholic school experience. The nuns were always quizzing us on the “Lord’s Prayer,” the “Apostle’s Creed,” the “Ten Commandments,” and how to correctly pray the rosary. I plan to write a future post about one of these nuns, so stay tuned.

By writing this post I am in no means saying that Catholic schools are perfect. Not all the teachers were caring or good at their jobs (about a year or so ago I read a story in the Pittsburgh papers about one of my former teachers who was arrested and in quite a bit of trouble). However, I do feel that my Catholic school education helped to shape the person I am today. For this I am grateful.

So, as Catholic Schools Week begins, I’d like to say a big “Thank You” to my parents for making the choice to provide me with a Catholic education, and also to all of those teachers who cared enough to make sure that I succeeded.

You Will Always Be in Our Hearts

My father, Francis Joseph Danko, passed from this life on 04 January 2012.  As much as my family knew this day was coming, it still seemed that we were unprepared for his death.

One of the most important decisions we had to make was the choice of a church in which to hold the funeral.  The Church of St. Vincent de Paul in Albany, New York, the church we had attended as a family, did not seem like a suitable choice because the church no longer had a permanent pastor and we would have had to bring a priest in from somewhere else to celebrate the Mass of Christian Burial.

We had decided that McVeigh Funeral Home would conduct the funeral since McVeigh’s had arranged the funeral for my father’s sister Helen and we were familiar with them.  Besides, the funeral home was just up the street from our old family home.  We had also decided that my father would be buried in Our Lady of Angels Cemetery where several other family members, including my mother, were buried.

Church of the Blessed Sacrament

Church of the Blessed Sacrament

SOURCE:  Church of the Blessed Sacrament (Albany, Albany County, New York); photographed by Stephen J. Danko on 08 January 2012.

We decided, then, to hold the funeral at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, around the corner from the funeral home and on the same street as the cemetery.  In December, my father had asked to see a priest and Father John Bradley from Blessed Sacrament came by to visit Dad and administer the Anointing of the Sick.  Blessed Sacrament is still a thriving parish in Albany, close to our old home, close to the funeral home, and close to the cemetery.

My sister and I met with Father Anthony Gulley who would celebrate the Mass.  We discussed my father’s life and made some decisions about the details of the funeral.  Father Gulley asked me to choose the first two readings and I decided on readings that would emphasize the belief in life after death.  I read the first reading from 2 Maccabees 12:43-46:

A reading from the second Book of Maccabees

Judas, the ruler of Israel, took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice.  In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.  But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.  Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.

The word of the Lord.

My cousin Karen, my father’s Goddaughter, read the second reading from Romans 6:3-9:

A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans

Brothers and sisters:

Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.

For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.  We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin.  For a dead person has been absolved from sin.  If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.  We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him.

The word of the Lord.

Later in the service, and again at the gravesite, Father Gulley recited the Prayer of St. Francis, my father’s patron saint, and the patron saint whose name I took for my confirmation name:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

Rest in peace, Dad.  You will always be in our hearts.

Church Closings and the Family Historian

It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of Catholic priests here in the United States. Virtually all dioceses and archdioceses are scrambling to figure out how to cope with the situation. In the Archdiocese of Detroit they have been working on constructing a plan for the future since 2004. Representatives from each parish have been a part of the planning process. A few weeks ago, the proposed plan that the representatives came up with was made public. That plan would have 9 parishes close and another 60 merge into 21. These are pretty drastic but unfortunately necessary changes. They aren’t the first parish closings in the Archdiocese of Detroit and likely won’t be the last.

At some point in February 2012, Archbishop Allen Vigneron will announce which of these changes, recommended by parish representatives, will need to be implemented. It is expected that the plans approved by the Archbishop will be implemented immediately and completed by June 2012. As you can imagine, it’s made for some anxious times for many metro-Detroit Catholics. Nobody wants to see their beloved church and Catholic community closed or merged. Everyone is hoping their parish will be spared. But at the same time we know that can’t be.

As a Catholic, I understand how difficult it can be to let go of one church and begin worshiping at another. Over the years you develop friendships and allegiances with neighbors and church staff that are difficult to replace at a new parish. You’ve established routines over the years and there’s comfort in the familiarity of knowing what to expect in your parish throughout the liturgical year.

It’s even more difficult for the Catholic genealogist and family historian. Parish records get relocated. Family histories that are tied to a given parish for several generations must end. Traditions that are tied to the church will come to an end as well. A Catholic church and the Catholic faith are ties that bind many families over generations. These are institutions that are held as sacred. Respected. Honored. It’s difficult to imagine life without them.

The houses my grandparents and great grandparents lived in after they immigrated from Poland to Detroit are all gone now. One by one they were razed as a result of urban blight and urban renewal. Of the 6 Detroit churches my ancestors had strong family ties with, 1 parish was closed and the building razed and 1 parish was closed but the building remains. The other 4 churches are still standing and have active parishes but few registered parishioners. Who knows how much longer that will be the case? They are in neighborhoods that have few houses left standing and they rely heavily on people coming in from the suburbs to attend Mass. I suspect a couple of these churches will be closed. That makes me very sad.

Sweetest Heart of Mary Catholic Church

I can’t revisit my grandparent’s houses. With those buildings no longer existing I’ve relied on visiting their parish churches to connect with them. Whenever I attend Mass at one of those beautiful old churches I can’t help but think of them. I run my hand along the back of the pew during Mass and wonder if they sat in that same space and touched that same pew. I go to Mass and walk down the same aisle they walked down for communion more than 120 years ago. I make my confession in the same confessional they did and wonder about what sins they may have confessed when it was their turn to talk to the priest. I gaze at the same stained glass windows I know they gazed at when the beautiful morning sun came streaming through and set the colors ablaze. And I wonder about the glory of God the same way I know they must have.

When I attend my local suburban church I don’t have those same connections. Even though I’ve attended there with my immediate family for years, the type of connection I feel is not the same. It’s not that deep familial connection with the past. I would hate to see it close but I wouldn’t miss it like I would miss the old churches of my ancestors.

What about you? Have you visited the churches where your ancestors worshiped? Are they even still standing? Perhaps it’s not too late for you. Whether you live in metro Detroit where church closings are imminent or another area of the country, you may lose the opportunity to do so soon if you haven’t already. The shortage of priests isn’t going away soon. More church closings are probably coming to a diocese near you. Take the opportunity now to visit the churches of your ancestors. You’ll be glad you did.

My Two Christmases

It’s Christmas time again!  No, 2012 hasn’t gone by that fast.

“Thirteen days after Western Christmas, on January 7th, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates its Christmas, in accordance with the old Julian calendar. It’s a day of both solemn ritual and joyous celebration.” [Quote Source: Russian Crafts].

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that my grandmother, although baptized  Greek Catholic, and raised in that faith, had joined the Russian Orthodox church (St. Nicholas) as an adult.  This was long after she arrived in America and settled in Pennsylvania.

As a result, we always had two Christmases in my family.  Because  it  was  more  universal, our family would have a big celebration on December 25th, which included the secular traditions  of a Christmas tree and Santa Claus, but also observe the January 7th Christmas with my grandmother.  In later years, when my grandmother’s health was failing and she could not attend the services in person, she often listened to them on the radio (there was a church that did a broadcast).  We would listen with her.

Observing the religious rituals meant we also got to enjoy the wonderful foods of the Vilija (Christmas Eve) supper twice as well.  More mushroom soup, more bobalky, more pirohy, more everything….yum! My poor grandmother (and mother too) seemed to be cooking for four weeks straight!  But those were very special times!

As it happens, January 7th is also my Auntie Sr. M. Camilla’s birthday (see my very first “Catholic Gene” post “My Auntie: Christ’s Career Woman and Our Family Historian”).  She would have turned 94 today.

Luckily, I have a freezer, and a microwave, so today I will be heating up the remainder of the mushroom soup and pirohy I stashed away after December 24th, and will play my Slovak Christmas carols one more time.  And I will remember my grandmother, and my Auntie–two of the most faithful people I have ever known–as I once again celebrate the true meaning of Christmas in my heart.

St. John Neumann

Everyone who breathes, high and low, educated and ignorant, young and old, man and woman, has a mission, has a work. We are not sent into this world for nothing; we are not born at random; we are not here, that we may go to bed at night and get up in the morning, toil for our bread, eat and drink, laugh and joke, sin when we have a mind, and reform when we are tired of sinning, rear a family and die. God sees every one of us; He creates every soul, …for a purpose. He needs, He deigns to need every one of us. He has an end for each of us; we are all equal in His sight, and we are placed in our different ranks and stations, not to get what we can out of them for ourselves, but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has worked, we too have but to labor in them for Him. As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do his work, we must rejoice in ours also. ~ St. John Neumann

St. John Neumann (1811-1860)

By secular standards, St. John Neumann’s story is a typical American immigrant success story.  He arrived in the U.S. in 1836 from Bohemia, alone and without the promise of a job. But he quickly achieved his dream of becoming a priest, and sixteen years later, at the age of 41, he became the bishop of one of the largest dioceses in the United States, Philadelphia.

But, despite St. John Neumann’s rise to success, he was not the typical American immigrant – he was a saint! He would have eschewed the idea that his life was successful and would have preferred a different kind of success – spiritual.  He did not want to be a bishop and only wanted to serve God and serve God’s people. It is because of his pastoral works, his humility, and his acts of kindness that he is remembered today.  For his feast day, celebrated today in the U.S., I would like to share more about his amazing life and also relate how his life affected the lives of my family years after his death.

John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in Prachatitz, Bohemia (today, the Czech Republic). From childhood he had inclinations towards the priesthood, and his high intelligence allowed him to receive higher education. He wanted to enter the seminary, but he had heard that the overcrowded seminary only accepted applicants with letters of recommendations from important people. Undaunted, and unshaken in his faith, he applied anyway – without recommendations – and was admitted to the seminary in 1831.

At the seminary, John excelled in his studies and showed a strong proclivity towards foreign languages. But he faced obstacles as well. At the time, the seminary was rife with heretical thought and an almost unholy atmosphere, and he lacked a spiritual director.  The darkest hour came when the bishop indefinitely postponed all ordinations in the diocese because of an abundance of priests! But John’s faith never wavered – when he heard that America desperately needed German-speaking priests, he decided to make the long journey.

John Neumann arrived in New York in 1836.  When he contacted the bishop the next day, Bishop Dubois was delighted at his arrival – so much so that John Neumann was ordained a priest only three weeks later for the diocese of New York. The diocese at the time included the entire state of New York and one-third of New Jersey. Of the 200,000 Catholics in that large area, there were only 36 priests – and only 3 spoke German. John was immediately sent to the parish of Buffalo, which included over nine hundred square miles from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania.

The time John Neumann spent as a parish priest ministering to the Catholics in this large area is in itself worthy of admiration.  John Neumann worked tirelessly to provide sacraments to the Catholic immigrants as well as minister to their educational and medical needs. At this time in American history, anti-Catholicism was rampant. John Neumann made sure that Catholics were educated in their faith, and he also won over many converts to the faith.

Eventually, traveling by foot over vast distances put a strain on the priest’s health. John felt that his spiritual needs might be better met through a religious community, and in 1840 he joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.  Two years later, he became the first Redemptorist priest to make his vows in America.

As a Redemptorist priest, John Neumann was assigned to parishes in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and continued his ministerial work with the same intensity as before. He became so well known for his piety, learning, and work ethic that in 1851 Archbishop Kenrick, Archbishop of Baltimore and former Bishop of Philadelphia, asked John Neumann to be his confessor.  Much to his horror, Archbishop Kendrick asked the Pope to appoint John Neumann as his successor in Philadelphia.  John Neumann felt he was not worthy of such a dignity, and if appointed it would cause “a calamity for the church.”  Pope Pius IX felt otherwise, and in 1852 John Neumann was consecrated as the 4th Bishop of Philadelphia.

At that time, the diocese of Philadelphia consisted of two-thirds of Pennsylvania, western New Jersey, and all of Delaware. In this vast area were 170,000 Catholics in 113 parishes ministered by only 100 priests.  Although we think there is a shortage of priests today, these numbers are staggering.

John Neumann exhibited the same zeal in his work as bishop as he did as a priest. He sought to visit every parish in the diocese as well as hospitals, orphanages, and religious communities. He avoided the pomp and ceremony customary of the office of bishop and preferred to live on a smaller scale without secretarial staff. He continually gave his belongings to the poor.  Other bishops scoffed that Bishop Neumann would wear tattered clothes unbefitting of his “stature”. He never rebuffed the remarks nor defended himself, but merely continued to live as piously as he could.

John Neumann accomplished much for the diocese of Philadelphia. First, he attempted to make a pastoral visit to every parish – even the most distant from the city of Philadelphia. He used this visits as an opportunity to meet the parishioners, and because he spoke eight languages he was able to hear confessions for many immigrants.  Next, he established the first parochial school system in America.  As if that weren’t enough, he published catechisms that remained in use until the publication of the Baltimore Catechism thirty-five years later.  John Neumann, the Bohemian immigrant, founded the first Italian Catholic parish in the United States, St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi in Philadelphia. He introduced the devotion of Forty Hours to the United States as well. And in a rather amazing accomplishment, in the eighty months he served as Bishop of Philadelphia, he founded eighty new churches as well as forty new schools. He even founded an order of religious sisters, The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis.

On January 5, 1860, the bishop was not feeling well. A fellow priest asked about his health, and Neumann replied, “I have a strange feeling today. I feel as I have never felt before. I have to go out on a little business and the fresh air will do me good.” He added mysteriously, “A man must be ready, for death comes when and where God wills it.”

The bishop went to run some errands. On his trip home, he collapsed on the corner of 13th and Vine Streets and died. He was only 48 years old.  He was buried in the Redemptorist church of St. Peter. Today, St. Peter’s has a shrine to St. John Neumann and visitors can see his body lying under the main altar.

St. John Neumann at the National Shrine of St. John Neumann located at St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia, PA

Soon after John Neumann’s death, there were reports of miraculous cures from his intercession. The first scrutinized miracle took place in 1923 when an 11-year-old Italian girl was cured of peritonitis. In 1949, a 19-year-old college student in the Philadelphia area was near death after a car accident; he was healed after prayers for John Neumann’s help.  These two miracles led to the beatification of Neumann in 1963.

The third miracle – the one that led to Neumann’s canonization – took place in 1962 when a young Philadelphia boy was given six months to live after a cancer diagnosis. After visits to the shrine at St. Peter’s to pray, he was completely healed within five months.  St. John Neumann was canonized on June 19, 1977.

St. John Neumann left his mark on Philadelphia in many ways. My family immigrated to Philadelphia over forty years after his death, yet his life impacted my family in several ways as well.  First, the Redemptorist church in which St. John worshipped and was buried, St. Peter’s Church, is in the neighborhood where my Bavarian great-grandparents settled.  It became their church, my grandparents’ church, and my father’s church. All worshipped there in the presence of St. John Neumann’s body, and the story of his pious life and miraculous intercessions were well known in my family as a result.

Also, as mentioned above St. John Neumann is known as the Father of the Parochial School System. My mother and grandfathers attended public schools, but my father, two grandmothers, my brother and I and numerous cousins all attended Catholic schools in Philadelphia. Until the Catholic school system was organized by St. John Neumann, there was no centralized method for Catholic education in this country. Those of us that “lived through it” are grateful that it existed.  We always felt special attending Catholic school because we shared our faith daily in addition to sharing the quest for knowledge about other subjects. As Catholic school children, we had a greater exposure to attending Church and learning about the faith, and we got to experience priests and nuns as our teachers.

The institution of the Forty Hours devotion by Neumann also impacted my family’s lives. Forty Hours is a 40-hour-period of Eucharistic adoration that represents the traditional time Jesus’ body was in the tomb from his death to Resurrection. The Forty Hours devotion began in Italy by St. Phillip Neri, but St. John Neumann was the first to introduce it to America. My teenage experiences with the annual Forty Hours at my parish positively impacted my faith. It became a celebration of sorts, and the music, prayers, and special guest preachers revitalized the parish.  Coincidentally, the priests who came to preach were from the Redemptorist order and lived at St. Peter’s – they were wonderful preachers.

St. John Neumann’s name has a way of occasionally appearing in my own life because of the many churches he built during his tenure. Most of these are not within the city limits of Philadelphia, but quite far away, and stumbling on to these legacy churches showed me just how much territory Neumann covered as a pastor.  My first Neumann-church find was somewhere near Scranton, PA – unfortunately, I do not remember the name, and there are about 27 churches founded in what is now the diocese of Scranton in addition to the cathedral.  As teenagers we were “far away” from home – nearly four hours north on the PA Turnpike – and visited a small, old church on our travels. On the wall was a sign that indicated St. John Neumann had made a pastoral visit to the church – and I wondered just how long that horse ride must have taken! I came upon another of his churches close to the town where I now live. The church, St. Peter’s in Riverside, NJ, would have been another long ride and must have included a ferry across the river since Neumann lived before the local bridge was built. This St. Peter’s is also the church where my brother got married.

Whether or not you have had that “personal” connection to the saint as I do, after reading his story hopefully you will find St. John Neumann’s life worthy of admiration for all of the good works he accomplished. He also continues to do good through intercessory prayer and miracles. All of that is rather amazing for a man who was told that he couldn’t be ordained because there were too many priests!  I pray that the church will be blessed with more priests like St. John Neumann.

St. John Neumann, pray for us!

For More Information

Celebrating the Feast of St. John

If you call out the name “John” at any of my family’s gatherings, you’re likely to see more than a half dozen men turn around to respond.

“John” was my father’s name, the first name of both of my grandfathers, and the name also shared by several of my uncles, cousins, and plenty of my male ancestors.  The English version derives from Latin, Greek, and originally, from Hebrew (meaning “YAHWEH is gracious”–see Behind the Name).

On December 27th, the Roman Catholic church celebrates the feast day of St. John the Apostle.

St. John: Photo from Catholic.org

John is a popular name thanks two significant figures from the New Testament (later saints): John the Baptist, and the apostle, John.

John was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and the brother of James (also known as Saint James, the Greater).  John, a fisherman, was a disciple of John the Baptist, and then a devoted follower of Jesus.  He stood by Jesus at the foot of the cross, and upon hearing of Jesus’ Resurrection, John was the first of the apostles to reach the tomb. Before he died, Jesus appointed John the guardian of his mother, Mary.  John is also known as:  “Apostle of Charity; Beloved Apostle; Beloved Disciple; John the Divine.”

In addition to preaching, John is traditionally regarded as the author of the fourth Gospel, three Epistles, and possibly the Book of Revelation.  Therefore, it seems only fitting that he is the patron saint of writers, editors, typesetters, bookbinders, booksellers, Asia Minor, and more. It’s been noted in the Christian tradition that John was the only one of the original twelve apostles to live into old age and not be killed for his faith.

I think that it was fitting my father was named John.  Although not much of a writer, Dad was a devoted son, brother, husband, father, and friend.  He also had a deep faith in the Lord.

In celebrating the feast of St. John, I remember my father and other family members who were named for him.

Also, as a writer, I often turn to St. John for guidance.  For example, I asked for his help so I could finish this post!  :-)

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On the Feast of Stephen

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night, tho’ the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight, gath’ring winter fuel.

John Mason Neale’s 1853 carol “Good King Wenceslas”  tells the story of a king who went out into the cold on the day after Christmas in order to present a gift to a peasant.  Everyone who has heard this carol is, therefore, familiar with the Feast of St. Stephen.  Many know that his feast is celebrated on December 26 in the Roman Catholic Church and on December 27 in the Eastern Catholic Church.  Some knowledgeable souls may even know that St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr.

Image of Saint Stephen in the Monaco Cathedral

Image of Saint Stephen in the Monaco Cathedral

SOURCE: Image of Saint Stephen in the Monaco Cathedral (Monaco-Ville, Monaco); photographed by Stephen J. Danko on 03 August 2011.

Stephen was probably of Greek origin and was probably a Jew who had converted to Christianity.  He was chosen by the apostles to be one of the first Deacons of the Church:

And they chose Stephen, a man filled with faith and with the Holy Spirit.

Stephen’s success in ministering to the early Christians attracted the wrath of certain of the Jews who proceeded to engage him in arguments.  Stephen’s detractors could not win their arguments and, so, they accused him of blaspheming against Moses and God.

This man does not cease to speak words against the holy place and the law. For we have heard him saying that this Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and will change the traditions, which Moses handed down to us.

Stephen defended himself against his accusers, but his words only fanned the flames of their wrath.  Encouraged by Saul of Tarsus (who would later convert to Christianity himself, eventually to become Saint Paul), the mob drove Stephen out beyond the city of Jerusalem and stoned him.

Then, having been brought to his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord. And Saul was consenting to his murder.

Stephen’s body was removed by Rabbi Gamaliel who buried it on his estate at Caphar Gamala, north of Jerusalem.

The biblical account of St. Stephen’s appointment as a deacon, his ministry, and his death may be read in Acts of the Apostles (6:1-8:2).

According to my Polish heritage, it is common to celebrate one’s “Name Day”, often in preference to celebrating one’s birthday.  So, on this my name day, I invite you to celebrate the life of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr and the patron saint of deacons, headaches, horses, coffin makers, and masons.

Copyright © 2011 by Stephen J. Danko

Reflections on Christmas Eve

While growing up, I looked forward to Christmas Eve even more so than Christmas Day. There were two reasons for this:  Midnight mass at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic church, and gathering with my family to participate in the rituals and traditions of my Slovak/Rusyn heritage.

Christmas Eve, known [in Slovak] as “Štedrý Vecer” (shtedree vecher), is traditionally the biggest annual event in the home, where the entire family gathers for the traditional Slovak meal called the Vilija/Vilia (vee-lee-yah). The term comes from the Latin “vigilia” or “night watch.” The name implies the joyful anticipation in waiting for the arrival of the Christ child.

My Slovak grandma (Baba) worked tirelessly to carry out the traditions of her heritage. In the Slovak culture, food is richly entwined with tradition and religious teachings, especially for Christmas, when special dishes are prepared and rituals observed.

Verona Figlar making pirohy, 1970s. [Photo held for private use by Lisa Alzo]

Our family would gather each year on Christmas Eve at my Grandma Figlar’s house to celebrate the Vilia Supper.  It is a meatless meal (to honor the Christian practice of fasting). During this supper, the following foods are served:

Oplatka/Oplatky (from the word oblata, which means “offering”) – unleavened wafers imprinted with scenes of the Lord’s holy birth, served with honey.

Mushroom soup – usually made of sauerkraut brine and dried mushrooms.

Bobalky (bo-by-ke) – sweet, raised dough or a biscuit type dough sweetened with honey and sprinkled with a pleasant preparation of poppy seed, or browned butter and sauerkraut.

Pagace/Pagach – A thin raised dough baked either in a single or double layer filled with sweet cabbage or mashed potatoes. After baking, it is brushed with butter and cut in pie wedges. We called it “Slovak Pizza.”

Fish – served because Catholics in Eastern Europe observed a strict fast on the vigil of Christmas.

Pirohy – dough pockets, pastry filled with fillings of sweet cabbage, sauerkraut, lekvar, prunes, or potatoes and cheese and boiled, then served with browned butter.

Other foods eaten include dried prunes, apples, nuts, and other items as dictated by family, village or regional customs.

Slovak pastry, known as kolace or strudel-like rolls which are filled with walnuts, poppy seed, lekvar (prune butter) or cheese.

Red wine is also served.

Oplatky and honey [Photo taken by Lisa Alzo, 2005, held for private use]

The foods take a long time to prepare. My mother and grandmother would start a few days in advance to make sure everything was ready for the family on Christmas Eve. Recipes for these Christmas Eve favorites are included in my book, Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes and Traditions, Second Edition (Lulu.com)

Foods served at the Slovak Vilija. [Photo by Lisa Alzo, 1995; held for private use]

After we finished the meal and family visit, it was time to attend to midnight mass at Holy Trinity.  The church was (and to my knowledge still is) decorated so beautifully with seasonal flowers and white lights.

[Photo courtesy of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, West Mifflin, PA, 2004, held for Private Use by Lisa Alzo]

One of my favorite parts of the midnight mass were the carols, many of which were sung both in English and Slovak, including Silent Night (Tichá noc).  You could not leave the church without feeling the true meaning of Christmas in your heart. To hear a version of Tichá noc click here.

Time and distance, and the passing of loved ones have prevented the large family gatherings we used to have, but I still try to observe as many as the rituals and traditions as possible.  Also, since I live hundreds of miles away now, I must listen to the Slovak Christmas carols on my own.  I play an album that belonged to my mother, “Vesele Vianoce” by Saint Matthews Choir, recorded many, many years ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (the church was consolidated with other South Side parishes in 1992 into Prince of Peace Parish).  But nothing will replace the special memories of those Christmas Eves at Grandma’s house, and after she passed away, my own home, with my mother at the helm, or attending mass with my parents at Holy Trinity.

I will end with the traditional Slovak Christmas greeting:

Veselé Vianoce a Šťastný Nový Rok!

(Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!)

Catholic Christmases in Three Languages: Part III–The Universality of Meaning

   8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a (I)Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 This will  be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:8-12.

Whether one says Feliz Navidad or Froeliche Weihnachten or just “Merry Christmas”, spoken from faith and love the words have a universal meaning of hope for all. And that’s my prayer for my Catholic Gene colleagues, our readers, our brothers and sisters around the world, those we know as well as those we’ll never meet.

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among all with whom He is pleased.”

Catholic Christmases in Three Languages–Part II: German

Part of my childhood was spent in Germany. I went to a German school for part of that time and we had a German nanny. I was immersed in the culture and language at an early age. And Christmas in Germany became one of my favorite times and some of my best memories.

We celebrated every year Sankt Nikolaus Tag. On the night of December 5, we would place our shoes outside the door. If we had been good that year, Sankt Nikolaus would leave chocolates, fruit, and other goodies in our shoes. If we had been bad, then we would find wood switches in our shoes the next morning. This was the commencement of the Christmas season which would last until Epiphanie (January 6).   As Donna Pointkouski  has written here, celebrations of this sort are Catholic traditions in Germany, especially in the southern regions such as Bavaria.

The story of Saint Nicholas’s generosity was the certain precursor to the now secularized story of Santa Claus.  But today, some German Catholics object to the blurring of the distinction between the holy saint and the jolly elf who slides down chimneys (whom they call “Weihnachtsmann” [“Christmas Man”]).  They’re waging a campaign to maintain the dignity of the historical St Nicholas by declaring Weihnachtsmann-free zones.  Even the German  version of CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), the Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend (BDKJ) supports the campaign in some areas. See the website Weihnachtsmann-freie Zone at http://www.weihnachtsmannfreie-zone.de/.

Another Catholic tradition that I first became familiar with in Germany is the Advent Calendar. This is a calendar for counting down the days of Advent until Christmas. Frequently, the calendar has little doors to open for each date.  There may be a religious message or gift, or a small toy, piece fruit, or candy associated with each opened door. I looked forward to each Advent in Germany to get a new Advent Calendar.

Other countries have embraced the idea of the Advent Calender.   American Catholics see the Advent calendar as a way to be reminded daily of the need to prepare for the greatest liturgical event of the year.

As it turns out, the Advent Calendar in reality is neither of Catholic origin nor “traditional” (at least not in German historical terms).  The idea dates from about 1850 and originated among German Lutherans!

German Christmas carols, however, are firmly grounded in Catholic tradition. My favorite German carol is this one:

At the German school I attended, we learned that the words were written by an Austrian priest, Father Josef Mohr in 1816. In 1818, Father Mohr asked Franz Joseph Gruber to coompose a melody for the song. Tradition holds that Father Mohr asked Gruber to compose the music for guitar because the piano in his church was not functioning. Some historians today find this story apocryphal. Whatever its origins, it has become a Christmas tradition worldwide. An Episcopalian bishop, John Freeman Young, wrote the widely used English translation in 1859.

The first Christmas song I learned in Germany has also become a classic. The traditional version consists of a melody of an old German folk song and words composed by Ernst Gebhardt Anschutz (1780-1861). Here’s Nat King Cole’s popular rendition:

 

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