Story by Christina Leslie | Correspondent
Just as Joseph and Mary traveled from their homeland to the tiny Bethlehem manger, so, too, did the faithful of the Diocese of Trenton travel in faith throughout the blessed octave of Christmas celebrating the Infant Jesus’ Birth.
Solitary, quiet prayer was counterbalanced by youthful and joyous evangelization, and adorning parish environments and extending thankful praise to helping hands served as worthy exhibitions of faith and gratitude.
As the community-at-large rang in the New Year with parties and concerts, a prayerful silence settled over the campus of St. Veronica Parish, a landmark on Route 9 in Howell.
There, as in Catholic churches throughout the world, the hours leading up to 2017 also ticked toward the observance of the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, on the following day. And as they have for 17 years, a number of faithful – mainly members of St. Veronica Parish – gathered Dec. 31 to greet the New Year with prayer.
Beginning at 9 p.m., faithful came and went in the peaceful twilight that illuminated the church. They knelt before the Blessed Sacrament until midnight, keeping Jesus company and his mother in prayer as the New Year approached.
The evening of prayer – consecrated to the Blessed Mother – began with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. The three hours offered participants the opportunity to share in the recitation of two Rosaries, the Litany of Saints and the Divine Mercy Chaplet interspersed with their own quiet, personal, intercessory prayers.
Among them were the six members of the Echezona family – Kenneth and Chioma and their four children, Emeka, Kene, Dubem and Chinomnso, who prayed the Rosary together and offered silent prayers.
“We always try to be here to end the year in church,” said Chioma Echezona. She shared that when the family spends the Christmas season in Nigeria with their extended family, as they did last year, it’s traditional to spend a greater portion of the night in church.
Praying on this night, she said, “is just a way of thanking God and not taking for granted” the help received last year. Then, she said, “you begin the New Year with God again.”
Deacon Tomasz Cechulski said usually about 100 people come and go through the night. It’s a way, he said, of uniting in prayer with people of good will throughout the world.
“I personally experience this as a beautiful way to end the year, begging for the Lord’s graces in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi and asking Mother Mary’s intercession,” he said.
A Living Tableau
A longstanding Christmas Eve tradition in St. Mary Parish, Bordentown, served as a joyous reminder of the first Nativity. About two dozen children, students from the parish’s second-grade First Holy Communion preparation class, re-enacted the story of Jesus’ birth during the 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass.
Photo Gallery: Children Present Nativity Story in St. Mary Church, Bordentown
“They did amazing,” said Margaret Zola, coordinator of religious education for the Burlington County faith community. Adorned in costumes both handmade and purchased, the children processed into the church where Father Michael J. Burns, pastor, proclaimed the Gospel of Christ’s Birth. Each junior shepherd, innkeeper and member of the Holy Family faithfully acted out the story as their pastor read the Gospel.
A birthday cake for baby Jesus was also blessed and served after Mass.
“The whole thing was beautiful,” Zola said. “The hands-on [presentation] really helped them understand the story.”
It Takes a Village
Decking the halls – and church – with boughs of holly became a community-building experience in Epiphany Parish this Christmas season. Many hands made lighter work for the Brick church’s arts and environment head, Lauri Bennett, thanks to a plea for aid in the parish bulletin.
“This was the second year I was in charge of decorating, and it’s a big job,” said Bennett, who also serves as the parish’s high school youth minister.
About 20 people from four families arrived at 9 a.m. Christmas Eve ready to pitch in. As Bennett adorned the altar and accepted flower deliveries, others wove ribbons through the many Christmas trees in the church.
Pre-teens earned Confirmation service hours for their hard work, and “even the little kids hung the ornaments,” Bennett said. What had been an arduous task the year before turned out to be a two-hour party for the crew and the start of another Epiphany tradition, for “we can do this at Eastertime, too,” Bennett reflected.
Food for the Body and Soul
A group of Knights of Columbus emulate their parish’s patron saint each Christmas Eve to assure no one is forgotten, and this year was no different.
The council in St. Martha Parish, Point Pleasant, cooked and distributed nearly 1,000 hot meals this Christmas Eve to surrounding senior outreach centers and retirement villages in the Ocean County area, said Rick Mastronardi, past grand knight.
Preparations traditionally begin about 5 a.m. in the church, with “15 to 20 people forming a line in the kitchen,” said Mastronardi. “There are Knights and other parishioners, too. We take everyone who wants to help.”
As some stir sauce, chop vegetables, cut bread, and prepare full pasta or ham dinners, about two dozen others complete delivery routes as they share the fresh foods, donated by area businesses or purchase by the Knights, with residents of Point Pleasant, Lakewood, Brick, Seaside and other shore communities.
“It’s open to anyone in need,” Mastronardi stressed. “The main thing is so everyone has a decent meal, at least on the holidays. It’s the least we can do. That’s what the Knights are all about.”
About 36 hours later, a festive Christmas afternoon meal, complete with music and gift baskets, served as a way for parishioners in St. Mary Parish, Middletown, to aid those less fortunate. About 75 people were guests at the parish’s annual Christmas meal, held in the cafeteria of the parish grammar school.
Photo Gallery: Christmas Day Meal Served in St. Mary, Middletown
The project began a few years ago after parish Deacon Marty McMahon and his family assisted at a nearby soup kitchen on Christmas Day.
“It was sad to see so many people in need,” the deacon recalled. “I thought our parish might also pitch in over the holidays, and our pastor, Father Jeff [Kegley], said ‘yes.’”
The parish created a website to coordinate donations, McMahon said. “People take ownership of an entrée or supplies. They fill all our needs. We have a feast here.”
Some families arrived at the dinner on their own, McMahon said, but the parish helped transport a few from a local motel where they were living, and a number of seniors traveled together by cab.
While some took care to meet their visitors’ culinary desires, others amassed gift cards and gift baskets, which they awarded at a free raffle at the meal.
“They might be the only Christmas presents these people receive,” Deacon McMahon said.
In a modern-day twist to the Biblical loaves and fishes story, St. Mary Parish had so many leftover meals that the deacon, his wife, Marie, and son Matthew took 25 to 30 trays of food back to the Keansburg soup kitchen that first inspired them.
“I am blessed with good people helping me,” Deacon McMahon said. “You know what they say, ‘The best present is presence.’”
Giving Thanks at Christmas
Realizing that this year’s Feast of the Holy Family fell on a weekday, Father John Testa, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro, and Renee Hatzold, parish music ministry director, wanted to find a way to bring parishioners together to observe the Dec. 30 feast in a meaningful way.
Their efforts resulted in hosting a Mass and an appreciation dinner for all parishioners who give of their time and talents in serving the parish.
As he welcomed the volunteers who represented the various ministries at the start of the Mass, Father Testa said, “We are gathered here on the Feast of the Holy Family and you are the people who help make up the family of Corpus Christi Parish. Thank you for your service.”
Keeping the focus on family, Father Testa, in his homily, reminded parishioners that while “each of us has our own image of what we believe to be the ideal family” – whether it is of their own family or of the parish family – “Today, we hold up the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as a model for family life.”
During the dinner that followed in the parish hall, parishioner Pat Lasusky shared about what it means to serve in the ministry.
“It’s great to know such a large number of us all work together to make Corpus Christi what it is,” said Lasusky, remarking on how nice it was to “see so many other volunteers” in attendance.
“As a Catholic, I think [serving the parish] is what we’re all about,” said Lasusky, who is a reader and a member of the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul conference. “I love and appreciate my faith and my parish, so how could I not also participate in and contribute. It’s really become part of my personal identity over the years and makes me feel even more connected to our community.”
Mary Stadnyk, associate editor, and Lois Rogers, correspondent, contributed to this story.
Related Photo Galleries:
Bishop Celebrates Christmas Eve Vigil Mass in Cathedral
Children Present Nativity Story in St. Mary Church, Bordentown
Christmas Day Meal Served in St. Mary, Middletown