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Homecoming, 84 years after graduation

At the end of this school year, the last Holy Cross sisters teaching in Virginia will retire.

It’s difficult to quantify how many thousands of lives the sisters have touched since they began teaching in Alexandria a few years after the Civil War ended. They founded a girls’ school, St. Mary’s Academy, which closed in 1990; a parish school at St. Mary Church in Alexandria; and taught catechism at the parish’s missions.

For a powerful tribute to the work of the Holy Cross sisters, you need look no further than Marion (Roland) Conrad, 102, a graduate of St. Mary’s Academy class of 1932.

Conrad, a lifelong Alexandria resident until she moved to Virginia Beach at age 95, recently made the long trip back to Alexandria to attend a St. Mary’s Academy reunion. The night was filled with the fond reminiscing expected at a reunion. Conrad, whose three sisters and daughter also graduated from St. Mary’s Academy, told stories including how she couldn’t attend her own graduation ceremony in 1932. The night before the graduation, at the baccaulareate dinner, Conrad became ill. The doctor paid a house call and diagnosed rheumatic fever, so Sister Osmana Kane accepted the diploma on her behalf.

Eighty-four years after graduation, and 26 years after her alma mater closed, Conrad still felt it was important to honor the Holy Cross sisters and the school. That’s the power of a Catholic education.

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The ‘rite’ way

As a lifelong Roman Catholic, I have no problem doing what the Romans do. But I felt like a fish out of water when I recently covered the Melkite-Greek Catholic ordination of Father Sabatino Carnazzo.

Everything was just a little different from what I’m used to. The artwork at Holy Transfiguration Church in McLean was all icons. Almost every word in the liturgy was chanted, by both the clergy and laypeople. I had no idea when to stand or sit. Even the incense smelled different — more sweet and soapy.

Through writing the article, I learned a lot of fascinating things about the Eastern rite, and it got me thinking about the “right” way of doing things. While some aspects of our religion — like morality — are black and white, the church in her wisdom allows for variances in terms of liturgy and custom.

Here are a few of the differences between the Roman and Melkite-Greek Catholic traditions:

•The first thing that struck me when I walked into the church was the particular liturgical furnishings and decorations. Anson Groves, a parishioner of Holy Transfiguration, helped fill me in on a few of them. The large, circular golden objects that were carried around the church at certain times are called ripidion or fans. “The kings and popes of old would be fanned while in procession, so we fan Christ the King in the procession,” said Groves. “On the fans are images of the angels who surround the throne in heaven. The movement of the fans is symbolic of the movement of the Holy Spirit: felt but not seen.”

•The priests and deacons often held aloft tall, thin candles — three bound together in one hand, and two in the other. The three together represent the Trinity, while the other two represent the duality of Christ’s nature: fully man and fully God.

•At the words of consecration, the congregants touched the ground and then blessed themselves. “Just as Roman Catholics genuflect, which is a partial kneeling, we have a similar …   More

Video: Seminarians balance prayer, study and fellowship

Three Arlington seminarians at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio describe their lives as a balance of prayer, study, fun and fellowship.

Read the story: A day in the life of a seminarian.

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When two or more are gathered in His name

This morning, 15 of us gathered in His name to remember longtime Catholic Herald administrative professional Soledad (Maria) Ibar, who passed away a year ago April 29.

A native of Chile, she had a gentle soul, a clever sense of humor and a deep faith that she was eager to speak about and act on. She made field trips to the Franciscan Monastery in Washington, D.C., and to Birmingham, Ala., the home of Mother Angelica and EWTN studios.

She spoke of her time in Rome, many years ago, where she studied and relished the environment of the Eternal City. She talked of waiting in long chaotic lines to get into St. Peter’s Basilica and watching scrappy nuns dash to the front once inside to throw sweaters over chairs to stake out their spot. She took it all in stride as she seemed to take everything, even her illnesses that became too numerous toward the end of her life.

She had a phenomenal commitment to her family, including her daughter and son, and their young children, but never forgetting her family back in Chile, including her elderly mother. On her last visit home, she fell as she was boarding the flight back to the states and broke both her wrists. She had to remain in Chile where her mother and her caretaker took Maria under their wing until she healed enough to return here.

She never stopped studying, whether it was faith-related, or new words, or her fascination with astronomy. We shared many a story about the latest reports from the Hubble Space Telescope, or the latest solar system discovery.

When you asked Maria for prayers, you knew she would make it and you a priority.

Today, on the eve of the anniversary of her death, as the Herald and other chancery staff gathered in the fifth-floor chapel, Father Paul de Ladurantaye offered Mass in her name. He tied the readings to our faith, her faith, and reminded us all that the Mass itself is a preparation for the next life.

Looking around at the 15 gathered for this intimate Mass, I realized …   More

A high-five for the frontline

I remember well my first job interview. Senior year at George Washington University and I stepped into the office of a local community newspaper.

The first woman I saw was the receptionist. With a big smile, she nearly shouted, “I don’t know what you are here for, but with that suit, you should get the job.” My nervousness faded as I patted the sides of my lavender suit, yes lavender, and took a seat to await my interview. This woman not only put me at ease, she presented a friendly face — a first impression — for the entire company.

My first impression of the Arlington Catholic Herald was two older women — the receptionist and bookkeeper — sitting in the very quiet sixth-floor office. I recall a thin blue veil of cigarette smoke and the not so subtle scent of Giorgio perfume. Those days, smoking in the office was allowed. These ladies were professional and pleasant, and they showed me how to navigate the climate of the office run by Editor Charlie Carruth, a Southern gentleman with an intimidating personality.

Over my years at the Catholic Herald, we’ve had many secretaries, receptionists, administrative assistants and administrative professionals. Yes, the titles and job descriptions have changed.

Each one brought something different to the job and to the atmosphere of the office.

One was a young woman who desperately wanted to have children, but could not. The day she found out there was a baby awaiting adoption by her and her husband, she squealed with delight and put in her notice.

Another had an illustrious career working closely with a notable cardinal in Chicago.

One grandmotherly woman ran the office with the precision and efficiency of a Marine Corps general, obviously from a lifetime of being a general’s wife with decades of experience making things run more than smoothly.

A young woman from Costa Rica, who had left her parents behind, found a needed fatherly figure in Editor Mike Flach, even bringing in her …   More

A reader informs — without getting my goat

I love receiving snail (or rather, real) mail, but when you work at a newspaper a letter can cause both delight and anxiety. Is it from a reader upset about a story? Did someone catch a typo?

Turning over a recent letter on my desk, a happy-face sticker on the back of the envelope put my mind mostly at ease. Inside I found a note about a story I’d done on the training of altar servers.

Robert McLaughlin Sr. of Springfield wrote:

That was a fine article about altar servers that you published in the Catholic Herald. You may not know that when I was altar boy age (I’m 97 today), servers also had to learn Latin in addition to all the functions you described in your article and give the appropriate responses in Latin during the Mass.

I would like to mention one other thing: The page 6 headline, “A dedicated bunch of kids,” gave me cause to inform you that in those days, boys and girls were called boys, girls or children. The only creature referred to as kids were young goats usually found in some backyards.

What a gem of a letter. I love that this nearly century-old gentleman took the time to share his experience as a server at Mass; I love that the writing builds to its primary point at the very end — and mixes it with good humor; and I love that its subject is linguistic evolution.

After sharing the note with a few co-workers, it inspired me to look up when, exactly, “kid” was first used to describe a child.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (and backed by Merriam-Webster), the origin of the word as a term for “young goat” has roots in Scandinavia, circa 1200. It first was recorded as slang for “child,” according to the online dictionary, in the 1590s and was established in informal usage by the 1840s.

Although “kid” as “young goat” got a nearly 400-year head start on “kid” as an informal version of “child,” I couldn’t quickly determine when …   More

Video: St. Veronica Rangers

The St. Veronica Ranger Company is a two year old organization dedicated to helping boys become saints through a variety of outdoor activities. The company just completed a skills hike and campout near Woodstock which included, hiking on Massanutten Mt., canoeing, and lots of fishing.

Read the full Boys on a hike with God story that appeared on page 3 of the Arlington Catholic Herald   More

What W.H. Auden got wrong

The wake of Deacon Tom Bello. was a gathering of joy. Though I never met him, by all accounts the atmosphere at his wake was a reflection of his life. While numerous people stood up and told stories of how his enthusiasm for life enriched their own, the most beautiful account came from his wife, Judy.

As Tom became more and more confined to his room, she said, the family sought ways to keep him engaged. “How do you find joy for someone who’s always radiated joy, when his life is so physically confined?” asked Judy.

They read children’s books, watched movies, told stories, looked at art and read poetry. One night, when he was already having trouble talking, Tom was able to say, “Stop all the clocks.” Fortunately Judy remembered that it was the first line of a W.H. Auden poem, which she then read to Tom.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,

Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,

Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest,

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

“We sat there for a moment and looked at each other and said, ‘Why did we like that poem?’ Judy told the mourners. “Auden messed it up big time.”

“It says, ‘I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.’ ” Then Judy looked out into the crowd at the wake. “Mary Lou, do you love your husband any less today lo these many years after he passed? Isn’t he still …   More

The missing St. Anne

During an assignment at Seton School in Manassas this week, I noticed a large statue nestled in a corner at the front of the school’s newly constructed chapel. I was surprised to find out that the statue was of St. Anne, Our Lady and the baby Jesus, specially designed for Seton’s new chapel. In 30 years as a practicing Catholic, I had never seen an image of St. Anne with the child Jesus, let alone three generations of the Holy Family.

I’ve since learned that there is a famous painting of the trio by Leonardo da Vinci on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, but the concept still feels like something of a rarity in religious art. After doing a little reading, I think I know why.

Catholics know nothing for sure about the life of St. Anne or her husband, St. Joachim. The gospels never mention the maternal grandparents of Jesus. The only source of possible information is from an apocryphal work written around 150 AD, but the credibility of that source is dubious. Even in that legend, there is no mention of them beyond Mary’s early childhood, much less any role they may have played in Jesus’ life. We don’t even know for sure if Mary’s parents were really named Anne and Joachim.

Regardless, Catholics have a long history of honoring St. Anne. As Catholic Online puts it: “For those who wonder what we can learn from people we know nothing about and how we can honor them, we must focus on why they are honored by the church. Whatever their names or the facts of their lives, the truth is that it was the parents of Mary who nurtured Mary, taught her, brought her up to be a worthy Mother of God. It was their teaching that led her to respond to God’s request with faith … It was their faith that laid the foundation of courage and strength that allowed her to stand by the cross as her son was crucified and still believe.”

Did St. Anne ever meet her grandson? We don’t know. But it’s an aspect of Jesus’ life that’s …   More

‘The great picture of his life’

This week for our retirement living section, I traveled to an assisted living facility in Warrenton to interview a man named John Sekelsky. After his Bible study, the other residents and I listened to the story of his life. I asked Sekelsky basic questions while the nursing home residents and volunteers pressed him for more details, entreating him to repeat old stories they had heard before.

The scene reminded me of a passage from Willa Cather’s wonderful novel, Death Comes to the Archbishop. Unlike what the title suggests, the book is almost entirely about the life of an intrepid missionary archbishop.

But Cather also paints a beautiful picture of the archbishop’s last days. His retirement gives him time to reminisce over his greatest accomplishments, his treasured friendships. “The Bishop was living over his life,” wrote Cather.

She continues, “Sometimes when Magdalena or Bernard came in and asked (the archbishop) a question, it took him several seconds to bring himself back to the present. He could see they thought his mind was failing; but it was only extraordinarily active in some other part of the great picture of his life — some part of which they knew nothing.”

As a writer, I believe each person has a story worth telling, especially the elderly. Fortunately, Sekelsky let us in on the most vivid memories of his life. It seemed to me a joy for him to tell it, and it certainly was a privilege for me to hear it.

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