It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the three churches of St. Damien Parish. As the poinsettias are arranged, the banners and creches are in place, the wreaths are on the door, and as thousands of tree lights go on later this week for the Christmas Masses, we will see the culmination of many hours of effort by the Art and Environment Ministry.
The ministry is led by three long-time coordinators: Ruth Ann Firmani at St. Augustine; Noreen McBride at Our Lady of Good Counsel; and Kay Reilly at St. Frances Cabrini. Throughout the year, and especially at holidays, they rely on volunteers, women and men, who help lift, climb, assemble, arrange, tend, take down and pack away decorations.
Planning for Christmas begins in the fall. The three coordinators meet with the florists at The Spinning Wheel to discuss ideas and needs. “You can’t count on growers to bring in the same sized plants each year,” Kay explained, but florist Mark Videtto provides reliable advice. The coordinators also continually monitor the condition of altar decorations year to year. While they have never been denied a purchase request, they also find creative ways to replace or fix items when they can. Noreen scavenged two styrofoam urns left behind after a wedding and spray-painted them gold. When an angel at St. Frances Cabrini lost a wing, Kay said, “my hot glue gun came out.”
Whatever time it is in the liturgical year, the goal of the ministry remains the same: to use art and beauty to bring people closer to God. “We want people to come into church and know that something important is happening,” Kay explained. “We try to put people in the right frame of mind.” Ruth Ann said: “We always will keep the focus on the Blessed Sacrament, the Tabernacle.” “Nothing should take away from that,” Noreen concurred. Also, whatever time it is in the liturgical year—Christmas, Easter, communion, confirmation, or even any ordinary week– there will be details to address. Watering fresh flowers twice a week is an important ongoing task, according to Ruth Ann.
Noreen, Ruth Ann, and Kay all sense the privilege of tending the altar. Noreen feels blessed that “somebody actually allows me to do this.” “How can you not be in awe?” asked Kay, and for Ruth Ann, a native of Ocean City, who attended St. Augustine as a child and was married there, “the church is filled with memories.” Now, such solitary work can bring the occasional hazard. Ruth Ann related the time that she slipped into the church to make sure everything was ready for the funeral of a close friend. Suddenly, she heard the sexton outside turning the dead bolt on the door. She was locked in without a phone! She opened a window and started calling for help, just then noticing Father Al Diaz leaving the rectory nearby. “I probably scared him,” she said, but rescue soon followed.
Kay has been decorating St. Frances Cabrini Church since the late 1990s. She is a member of the Ocean City Garden Club and helps to organize the annual flower show. Noreen, who has been decorating Our Lady of Good Counsel Church since 2010, also is a member of the Garden Club. Ruth Ann learned to decorate by helping the late Carolyn Murphy, who was in charge at St. Augustine Church for many years before her death. Ruth Ann took over ten years ago.
A few weeks before Christmas, Noreen, Kay and Ruth Ann faced a long list of things to do. They were glad that they were “in this together.” They also said they are glad when people respond to the beauty of their work. That includes Kay’s granddaughter, who remarked one day, “I like how Grandmother takes care of God’s house.”