By Lisa Kochanowski
SOUTH BEND — About 100 people of all ages turned out for a special Polish dinner feast known as Mikolaj. After dinner, guests were treated to some traditional Polish carols (with English translations) and then a visit from St. Nicholas, otherwise known as Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades.
“Mikolaj has been celebrated in Polish homes for years,” said organizer and St. Casimir parishioner Ann Sommers. “On St. Nick’s eve, children put out their shoes or stockings and the next morning they will find an apple, orange or some candy. I usually got an apple and chocolate. I carried on the tradition with our children. They still get an ornament for St. Nicholas Day.”
According to Sommers, the late Father Joseph Fey began a parish-wide celebration in 1989. It only lasted a year or two, but when the church celebrated its centennial in 1997-98, the church committee brought the tradition back.
“That year, we sponsored an event a month for the entire centennial year and Mikolaj was December’s event,” noted Sommers. “Mikolaj started out as a parish function, but now more than half are people from other parishes that have heard about it, came and now come back year after year. One year we even had some teenagers that came to eat with us before they went to their high school winter formal! We average about 110-120 people.”
The evening begins with a prayer followed by a traditional Polish meal of pierogi, noodles, roast beef, herring and breads.
“Last Saturday we worked from 7:30 a.m. till 1:30 p.m. making 270 pierogi,” said Sommers. “It’s a lot of work but just as much fun.”
After the meal, parishioner and organist Christine Gerschoffer played the piano and sang the “kolendy” or Polish Christmas carols.
When it came time for the children to get a visit from St. Nick they received a surprise with the role of St. Nick being played by Bishop Rhoades. He gave the visitors gifts of fruit and candy and all the children received a St. Nick prayer card.
Once the present distribution ended, Bishop Rhoades had the chance to tell the guests a story about an experience he had that has made St. Nicholas a special person in his life.
While on travels overseas, Bishop Rhoades was riding on a train that took him by the place where St. Nicholas is buried. He felt an overwhelming need to visit the site and pray and asked his traveling companions to change their plans so they could go and pray at the site. The travelers agreed to the stop and the group went to pray at the site where St. Nick is laid to rest.
“When we got up the next day we read in the paper that the train we had been traveling on was bombed by terrorists and 80-some people died,” Bishop Rhoades said. “I’ve always said St. Nicholas saved my life.”
Bishop Rhoades also had the children read aloud the prayer card about St. Nicholas and discussed how St. Nicholas was a bishop, the purpose of his staff and how he is the patron saint of little children.
“Boys and girls remember, the original Santa Claus is a bishop,” laughed Bishop Rhoades.
It was a memorable evening for everyone who attended and the community sent Bishop Rhoades home with a gift of a compact disc of Polish Christmas carols.
“The goal of the program is to start the holiday season and rekindle some of those memories of Busia (grandmother) and Dzia Dzia’s (grandfather) house. It’s a very simple, very family-oriented event,” said Sommers. “I hope people leave with a happy heart and a full belly. This is definitely not commercial. It’s Polish customers, family and friends.”
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