By Barb Arland-Fye, Lindsay Steele and
Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
Sister Barbara Kopel, CHM, patiently untangled small metal hooks on which to hang Christmas ornaments: gold balls, red balls and itsy bitsy, hand-crafted bird houses. She passed the hooks to Sisters Claudellen Pentecost, Pat Miller and Kathleen Henneberry who attached them to the ornaments and selected the perfect spots on the tree to place them. “I think we kind of overdid it, but that’s alright,” Sr. Miller quipped.
On that Dec. 16 morning you could find sisters in every wing of the Humility of Mary Center in Davenport, decorating Christmas trees — large and miniature — arranging crèches and adding festive touches to doorways and halls.
Later that afternoon, sisters and associates gathered for the traditional Christmas Tree Blessing. The sisters’ singing filled the hallways as they walked from the first to the second to the third tree. Some used canes or walkers; all sang “Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree” with Christ-centered lyrics. Sister Johanna Rickl, the Congregation of the Humility of Mary’s president, said a prayer and then blessed the first decorated tree with an evergreen branch she dipped in holy water. She shared blessing duties with Sisters Kathleen Tomlonovic and Mary Bea Snyder.
Afterwards, all the sisters gathered in the dining room for cheese, wine and conversation. That’s the tradition of one community of women religious in the Diocese of Davenport preparing for Christmas.
Other communities have their unique traditions, too. One thing they share in common: the sisters who live in their community’s motherhouse often celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day quietly with Mass as the centerpiece. “The focus is the birth of Christ and getting together as a family (of sisters), praying, meditating and reflecting on what Jesus’ birth means to us as a community,” Sr. Miller said.
The Clinton Franciscans
Each year, the Sisters of St. Francis in Clinton receive a Christmas surprise following the Christmas Eve prayer service at The Canticle — a gift they’ll give away. “The gift is something that’s been given in our name to some charity,” said Sister Michael Marie Burns, OSF. And it’s the perfect gift. “For many of us, giving is something that is many times more emotionally satisfying than receiving.” She is excited to find out which charity will be chosen this year. Previous recipients include Café on Vine in Davenport and The Women’s Center in Clinton.
At the Christmas Eve gathering, the sisters share stories from Christmases past. “Some are funny, some are happy go lucky, some are very serious, some are very prayerful,” Sr. Burns said. “We enjoy that time together.”
On Christmas day, the sisters celebrate Mass with traditional Christmas hymns and enjoy dinner with decorated tables. The afternoon is spent socializing and playing games like cards and Rummikub.
Another tradition the sisters enjoy is making Christmas cookies. President Sister Anne Martin Phelan’s niece and nephew bring in ingredients for frosted sugar cookies, which the sisters bake and decorate. Sister Hilary Mullany said, “It’s just hilarious, so fun. We aren’t very good at it! But we have a very nice host and hostess to help us through the process. It’s a good day.”
The 27 sisters also put out their crèche collection for public display and decorate ornaments for the tallest Christmas tree at the Canticle, writing names of sisters or their spiritual gifts on the ornaments.
Sister Dorothy Mae Stolmeier, OSF, said most of the Clinton Franciscans choose to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas day at The Canticle. Many times, sisters who have family nearby make plans to see them on the days surrounding Christmas. Sr. Stolmeier visited nieces and nephews the weekend before Christmas but will spend the holy days with her community. “It’s wonderful to have family and be with family… but I’ve been with community 57 years or so. I would say that this is my home, this is my family (too), and I’ve been very blessed to be in the family of the Clinton Franciscans.”
She said celebrating the holy days at the Canticle helps her to focus on the spiritual aspects and not get distracted by all the “noise” of Christmas Time. “I’m not into big parties and shopping sprees. I have what I need, and there aren’t really things I want anymore. I’m just very happy with where I am. You appreciate the quiet time more when you get older, too.”
There is an exception. She loves to sing the Christmas carols at Mass. “It’s a beautiful, happy, joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus.”
All seven sisters at the Carmelite Monastery in rural Eldridge spend their Christmas and other liturgical holidays at the motherhouse. Prioress Sister Lynne Elwinger, OCD, said the majority of sisters are not from the area.
Families often live too far away, and winter weather conditions usually are dicey for travel. “Though this year (the weather) does not seem to be an issue,” she laughed.
The sisters celebrate Advent with the “O” Antiphons, which accompany the Magnificat canticle of Evening Prayer from Dec. 17-23. The ancient antiphons proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes and of present hopes.
In past years the sisters did not decorate until Christmas Eve. On Dec. 17, “we put up a tree in the chapel and our family room. But we do not light it until Christmas,” Sr. Elwinger said.
In past years the sisters displayed Nativity scenes throughout the monastery, including in the sisters’ rooms. “We just can’t do it all on Christmas Eve anymore and not all of us get around as easily.”
On Christmas Eve the sisters gather in the chapel for Mass, celebrated by a diocesan priest. This year Father Ed O’Melia, now retired, will preside. Following Mass, the tree is lit and a gift exchange leads into the night. “We don’t stay up as long as we used to,” Sr. Elwinger noted.
After a Christmas meal on Dec. 25, the sisters take time to relax that afternoon before getting back to answering correspondence, fulfilling card orders, inquiries and other requests on Dec. 26.
If any sisters do wish to visit with family and friends, they typically leave on Dec. 26 for their trips. “We just celebrate as a community.”
Sisters of Humility
Some of the sisters who do not live in the Humility of Mary Center motherhouse come for Christmas, giving them a chance to renew their closeness with the 27 sisters who live there.
Christmas is also a time to think about the sisters living in the Bishop Drumm Retirement Center in Johnston, Iowa. While sisters in the Davenport area try to visit the sisters at the retirement center as often as possible, not everyone is able to do so. As a way of remembering members at Bishop Drumm, the Davenport sisters put together gift bags filled with cards and useful goodies like powders and lotions. “It’s important for them to know we’re thinking about them and praying for them,” Sr. Miller said.
Sister Claudellen Pentecost just moved to the Davenport motherhouse this year. Previously, she lived near family in Montana, but after their deaths she thought, “I’ll come live with my sisters.”
In the early 1980s, Sr. Pentecost served as building coordinator of the motherhouse and was active in Christmas preparations, which included sisters from the Davenport area decorating by night and leaving the residents with a “winter wonderland” surprise the next morning. Although this year marks the first time in about 30 years she will be celebrating Christmas at the motherhouse, she was back in the groove decorating Christmas trees. She looks forward to celebrating the season with her community. “It’s nice to be back with them. We just need some sunshine and some snow, which you get more of out in Montana.”
“Christmas Eve is always special … we celebrate in a spiritual way,” observed Sr. Barbara Kopel, who will mark her third Christmas living at her community’s motherhouse. After Mass and a light dinner with the other members, Sr. Kopel, who survived a battle with cancer, usually goes to her room. “I get pretty quiet and just contemplate the silence inside and out and reflect on what I’m optimistic about.”