I remember going to a South Side Milwaukee parish with (relatives) and a basket of our Easter eggs, Polish sausage, bread, butter and a few other items.
Grandma (Marie Mahnke) decorated the basket with a colorful linen (representing Jesus’ shroud) and my sister and I added the colored eggs, usually with a crude cross drawn in crayon before we colored them. The (homemade) bread was twisted into the shape of the cross. The Polish sausage came from my aunt Kitty (Catherine Widuch). She was known for her homemade sausage.
The honor of carrying the basket into the church and down to the altar was given to either my sister or myself, depending on who was the best-behaved in the car. Whoever didn’t get to carry Grandma’s basket usually carried Aunt Kitty’s, so there really wasn’t a loser. I don’t remember the ceremony (in detail), but each basket was blessed and there were a lot of baskets.
Roberta Schaefer, a member of Oconomowoc’s St. Jerome Parish, is recalling a Swieconka (svyehn-SOHN-kah) from her childhood, at a church whose name and specific location have escaped her during approximately 50 intervening years. Swieconka is a Polish term for Blessing of the Food—food for participants’ Easter meals.
The blessing can be given on either Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday. According to a recent bulletin from St.
What’s in the basket?
Research into the centuries-old tradition of blessing food at Easter reveals that the following commonly consumed items are sometimes seen as symbolizing various virtues and aspects of the Resurrection story: bacon (divine mercy), bread (God-given staff of life), butter in form of lamb (Lamb of God; richness of salvation), cheese (moderation), Easter cake (Risen Lord), eggs (hope; new life), sausage (chains of death broken by Risen Savior), ham (abundance; joy in Resurrection), horseradish (bitterness of Christ’s passion), salt (preservation from corruption), sweets (promise of eternal life).
Baskets occasionally include a candle, representing the Light of the World; Presiders may light such candles during blessing ceremonies.
James Parish in Menomonee Falls, where the blessing will take place this Holy Saturday as it has in past years, the Eastern European-rooted rite “owes its origin to the fact that particular foods, namely fresh meat and milk products, including eggs, were forbidden in the Middle Ages during the Lenten fast and abstinence. When the feast of Easter brought the rigorous fast to an end and these foods were again allowed at table, the people showed their gratitude and joy by first taking the food to church for a blessing. Moreover, they hoped that the Church’s blessing on such edibles would prove a remedy for whatever harmful effects the body might have suffered from a long period of self-denial.”
Additionally, the bulletin blurb noted that the blessing “recognizes that food itself has an important place in the Resurrection story,” with the Risen Christ both asking for and eating food in Biblical passages.
Milwaukee’s St. Stanislaus Church, founded in 1866 as the nation’s first urban Polish parish, and St. Josaphat Basilica each have three Swieconka rituals scheduled this year; atypically, the blessings at St. Stanislaus will be on Easter Sunday, April 20. If, decades ago, the blessing was imparted strictly among the archdiocese’s Slavic parishioners, it has greatly expanded. The Blessing of Food is slated for April 19 at congregations throughout the archdiocese from Franklin to Fond du Lac and Mukwonago to Mequon, most of them of no particular ethnic stripe, and include sites at St. Francis Borgia in Cedarburg, St. Peter in Kenosha, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in North Lake, Queen of Apostles in Pewaukee, St. Richard in Racine, Sacred Heart of Jesus in St. Francis, St. William in Waukesha and St. Rita in West Allis.
“We have been doing this for a number of years at St. James,” noted Deacon Mike Rooney of St. James Parish in Menomonee Falls. “It’s becoming more interesting every year as more and more people participate. I love hearing the people who come for the first time say that they remember doing this as they were growing up—and it seems to cross all ethnic boundaries. It’s also good to see the people bringing their children and grandchildren to pass along the tradition.”
Vested in alb and stole, Deacon Rooney will preside at the morning blessing in the St. James Historical Chapel, the original parish church still used for weekday Masses and other ceremonies. “It might just be the oldest active church building in the archdiocese,” he noted.
The ritual will include a Passover-related reading from the Book of Deuteronomy; a responsorial Psalm; intercessions; and sprinkling the baskets of food with holy water. During the sprinkling, the presider will ask God’s blessing on “us and this food of our Easter meal,” adding, “May we who gather at the Lord’s table continue to celebrate the joy of his Resurrection and be admitted finally to his heavenly banquet.”
Lay ministers, as well as priests and deacons, can give the blessing – at St. James Parish in Franklin, parish director Dan Hull and pastoral care director Ambrose Siers will bless the food. Hull will convey the blessing in English, Siers in Polish. The parish is not an ethnic one, although Hull believes there may have been “more of a Polish flare at one time” in the congregation that traces its history to 1857. Moreover, since Polish speakers were among those attending the Franklin food blessings and since the pastoral care director was conversant in that language, a bilingual blessing ceremony has replaced the former strictly English one.
While the ceremony is not heavily attended in Franklin, “people appreciate it,” according to Hull, who is of Irish ancestry. “It’s a neat tradition,” he added, and—as is par for the course with ceremonies in parishes of the archdiocese—“open to anybody.”