Garments passed between generations tie families to the sacraments
When Zelie Diane Kennedy was baptized at St. John the Baptist Parish in Covington last fall, she wore a long white gown with an even longer history.
She is the 107th child and sixth generation of an extended family that’s been baptized in the gown. Wearing the dress before her were her mother, Theresa Kennedy; her grandmother, Anne Brennan; her aunts and uncles; and many, many other family members.
“Hopefully someday Zelie’s children will be baptized into the Catholic faith wearing the same gown,” said Theresa.
The long, embroidered cotton and lace gown with matching slip was made for the baptism of Joseph Schneider Jr.’s first child, Maggie, on Dec. 10, 1882, in Peoria, Illinois.
It needs a little repair work but otherwise remains in great condition, said Anne, the current “keeper of the gown,” who is responsible for mailing it to each new baptism and maintaining it in between. Anne’s mother was in charge of the dress before her, and Theresa seems to be next in line.
A registry of babies, parents and godparents and a scrapbook travel with the family heirloom.
The gown has been worn in Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Virginia, Oregon, California and South Carolina. It’s even been in two places at once, when two baptisms close together required that the gown’s matching slip go to one location and the gown to another. Twins also get to split the two pieces. No triplets have tested the garment’s limits yet.
Anne said the 135-year-old gown connects her to distant relatives and the faith they all have in common. Her daughter, Theresa, agrees.
“I think there’s something about the sense of community that it provides,” Theresa said. Even though she and her mother have never met most of the relatives who have worn the baptismal gown, “It really ties us together so intimately.
“To wear the same clothes, literally, the same gown, as we become baptized and as we enter into the faith is really beautiful.”
Anne feels a special call to the sacraments of initiation, since she and her husband Mike teach infant baptism, first Communion and confirmation classes at their parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Federal Way.
“We really enjoy meeting new families and love to convey to them what an amazing thing they’re doing for their child,” she said of working with parents to baptize their babies.
“I always keep the focus on the sacrament of baptism. It’s more important than what they wear,” she said. “But I think that the gown just enhances the beauty of the sacrament. It’s a way of welcoming those children into our long Catholic tradition of our families, as well as welcoming them into the faith in their local communities.”
Diane, 1958. Renee, at center, with her sisters, 1985. Gemma, 2016. Photos: Courtesy Diane Grayhek Hardy/Renee Tichy
Vintage first Communion dress
Back when Diane Grayhek made her first Communion at St. Patrick Parish in Spokane in 1958, it was fairly common for girls to wear homemade dresses.
So the white, dotted Swiss dress with a yoke collar, satin waist bow and matching veil that Diane’s mother, Mary, made for her had time and care sewn into them from the start.
Diane, the oldest girl in a family of seven children, was “a skinny little drink of water,” as she put it. And since she made her first Communion in the first grade, a year earlier than is typical, the dress was petite-sized and didn’t fit the rest of her sisters.
But it did fit Diane’s two oldest girls, Elisa and Renee.
“I knew that when I got to wear that dress I got to make my first Communion,” Renee Tichy recalled. “It’s just this special thing that makes you feel like a grown-up in the church. The dress was a part of that for us.”
When Renee’s oldest daughter, Gemma, was getting ready for her first Eucharist at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Vancouver in 2016, Renee almost bought her a communion dress.
“They’re pretty, but they just don’t have that extra little bit of love sewn into them,” she said.
Mary Grayhek with her granddaughters Gemma and Magdalene. Photo: Courtesy Renee Tichy
When it came down to Gemma choosing between a previously worn flower girl dress or the family dress, “she wanted to wear Oma’s dress,” Diane said, referring to her granddaughter’s nickname for her.
“I was amazed that it fit Gemma and that was the one that she wanted to wear,” said the original dressmaker, Mary, who is now 90, and still sewing flannel receiving blankets for her great-grandchildren.
“She knew that I had worn it and her grandmother had worn it, and I think she got caught up in, ‘This is a special dress,’” Renee said.
That was happy news to Mary and Diane. They passed along the message that the family dress “comes with extra graces.”
The hope is that Gemma’s 5-year-old sister, Magdalene, will want to wear the dress in a few years too. The dress’ original veil also has been passed down, with different accessories updating it through the generations.
“To be able to put something on that you know your great-grandmother made is special,” Diane said. “It’s just a labor of love and you want to keep it and pass it along.”
The gown Zelie Kennedy and generations before her have worn for baptism. Photo: Courtesy Theresa Kennedy
There’s a reason white is worn for the first two sacraments of initiation.
The Book of Revelation refers to “all saints of God with their robes washed white in the blood of the lamb,” said Father Jim Johnson, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Redmond.
“The white garment reminds us of the garments of the saints around the throne of God.”
The Rite of Baptism specifically calls for a white garment to be presented to the newly baptized child, symbolizing the purification from original sin, Father Johnson said.
“The goal of the whole Christian life is to become a saint. And of course at baptism we are given a share in Christ’s life and we share in the holiness of Christ.”
While wearing white is not required at first Communion, in many parishes girls will wear a white dress and boys will wear white suits or other white clothing. Both echo the white garment of baptism, Father Johnson said.
From the Rite of Baptism for Children: “You have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With your family and friends to help you by word and example may you keep that dignity unstained into the everlasting life in heaven.”
Northwest Catholic - May 2017
Anna Weaver is the multimedia, online and social media editor for Northwest Catholic. She also writes for the magazine and website.