By Lindsay Steele
It was 1918 and Mary Ebert Janssen was expecting her first child. She prepared for the birth by crafting a baptismal gown. She spent hours upon hours embroidering an intricate floral pattern into the delicate white cloth, finishing the gown by embroidering a lace collar, hem and cuffs.
She gave birth to George on Oct. 2 of that year. He was baptized at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Davenport. Little did she know that 98 years later, her great-great grandson, Bradley — a descendant of her youngest child, Harry — would be baptized in the same gown at St. Mary Catholic Church, just a couple of blocks away.
For years, this gown had been in the possession of one of Mary’s eight children, Jean Schaeffer, who at 90 is Mary’s last living child. Jean later passed it on to her daughter, Barb Sarich, whose children had already been baptized by the time she acquired the gown. When Barb heard we were expecting, she asked if we had any desire to use it.
Given my sentimentality and love of heirlooms, I jumped at the chance. When I saw the gown for the first time, I was amazed at how beautiful it was. I was equally impressed by its impeccable condition. Jean and Barb had clearly preserved it well. I fell in love, too, with the sepia-toned photograph accompanying the gown. There was Mary, sitting on a turn-of-the-century sofa holding George on the day of his baptism, clearly proud of both her son and the gown she made for him.
Unsure whether Bradley would fit into the tiny gown at the time of his baptism, I decided to recreate that image during his newborn photo session. Although Bradley was two months old when he was baptized at St. Mary’s, he did end up fitting into the gown — barely. Just one of the three buttons in back buttoned, but with a white onesie underneath, no one could tell. Maybe Bradley knew how special the gown was; he didn’t cry at all during the baptism, and didn’t spit up, either! In fact, he smiled through most of it, encouraged by his godfather, Dana Burke.
Sometime after the baptism, I went with my mother-in-law, Kay, to see “Auntie Jean” at the Kahl Home. She was unable to attend the baptism, but we brought pictures — including a side-by side of the original photograph of her mother Mary and her brother George, and the one I recreated with Bradley. She started to cry when she realized what we’d done with the gown. She wished she could “send that picture to heaven” so her mother could see it.
When I asked what her mom would think of her great-great grandson wearing the gown almost 100 years later, Jean said, “She’d love it.”