Every year church sanctuaries around the world mirror our hearts as they prepare to receive the newborn King. Red poinsettias, flickering candles and the smell of fresh evergreen are reminders of the joyous season.
To make that possible, many parishes have a dedicated group of sacristans and decorators who donate their time to make Christmas liturgies special. This is certainly the case at St. John Church in Maria Stein. Located in the northern archdiocese, the parish highlights the Advent and Christmas seasons in the German tradition with a large, mountainous nativity scene that covers an entire side altar. The sanctuary is highlighted with evergreen trees, yards of lighted garland and oversized white and red poinsettias.
A sacristan at St. John’s for more than 20 years, Janet Heitkamp knows the church inside and out, having prepared for countless liturgies and sacramental celebrations. Her husband, Ted, said, “Our car doesn’t know how to drive past the church, it always wants to turn in!” He and other parishioners have assisted her through the years. For Christmas and Easter, Heitkamp leads the group who places and waters the fresh flowers.
Altar garlands are arranged by a team of volunteers headed by Jared and Caroline Ranly. They took on this task after it was passed around the Men’s Sodality. The couple joked that they hope the same parishioners remember how it was done from year to year. Hanging the lighted garlands, which accentuate the ornately carved altars, is more difficult than it appears. There is the hazard of the extension ladder and popping breakers when too many light sets are connected. However, when asked what the most difficult task is, Jared promptly replied, “The wreath at the very top!” It hangs high above St. John’s, just below a small wooden cross.
The Maria Stein parish’s centerpiece decoration is the nativity scene. The figures are so old, no one quite knows the origin of them, but a local painter and parishioner, Jackie Arling, returned them to their original glory in 2015. Dale and Lynn Homan organize the small army of volunteers who set up the creche. While it has the usual stable, their display also includes mountains above for shepherds and a forest of illuminated pine trees. The top of the side altar is just visible from behind the Star of Bethlehem.
Dale recounted the nativity display’s origin. He first helped with the nativity scene in 1986, and remembers the volunteers decided the paper-mâché cave had seen better days. Parishioner Clete Heitbrink offered to construct something out of wood for the parish and built it over the summer, however, he didn’t see the display in its full glory, passing away before Christmas. Denny Mescher, who coordinated the display set up before Dale, had a plaque affixed to the stable commemorating Heitbrink’s devotion to St. John’s nativity.
When asked to name their favorite piece, many mention the bright colors and intricate details of the magi. Dale shared that his favorite piece is the townsman who looks through the stable window, “It’s like he was perfectly made to be placed right there!”
For the volunteers who decorate St. John’s, this annual time together has helped build community and deepen their celebration of Christmas. It has helped Jarred and Caroline “embrace the spirit of the Christmas season – Jesus the light of the world.”
Reflecting on her work as sacristan, Heitkamp knows it’s the people who made the position fulfilling. “It always amazes me how many visitors come into church, both near and far…It’s fun to hear their stories and often it makes me realize just how much I take for granted,” Heitkamp said.
While many parishes don’t have decorations to St. John Church’s scale, each sanctuary has great meaning to us. We give thanks for the staff and volunteers who assemble every detail in our parishes for Christmas. The beauty of our churches during this season helps draw everyone together, reminding us that we are family, coming to praise Emmanuel.
This article appeared in the December 2021 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.