Led by Deb Hamm, Parish Director of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish, students and teachers of Divine Savior Catholic School extend their hands in prayer toward the gravestones in St. Rose Cemetery in Fredonia. (Photo by Colleen Jurkiewicz)
A well-worn baseball cap. A stuffed pink bear. And photographs — so many photographs. Smiling faces. Embracing figures. Blown-out birthday candles and laughter frozen on film.
The “ofrenda,” or memorial altar, was overflowing with them, these little keepsakes of lives that have now passed beyond the veil.
On a bright, chilly morning, as the autumn leaves dwindled from the trees, the Divine Savior Catholic School community gathered to remember in prayer “those who are now on the other side of life,” said Fr. Patrick Wendt, who presided at the Nov. 2 Mass.
DSCS students and teachers have been creating an ofrenda on All Souls Day for the past several years to memorialize the lives of departed loved ones. This year’s ofrenda was constructed beneath a statue of the Madonna and Child, flanking the main altar in the St. Rose Chapel, just next door to the DSCS school building in the heart of Fredonia in Ozaukee County.
Prior to Mass, students and teachers had placed personal items, heirlooms and pictures amongst candles, skulls and papier-mâché bunting, traditional features of an authentic ofrenda.
Ofrendas are a part of the traditional Mexican observance of El Dia de los Muertos, “the Day of the Dead,” celebrated annually Nov. 2, or All Souls’ Day, when the Catholic Church commemorates all the faithful departed, emphasizing the spiritual link that exists between all members of the Body of Christ — those still living here on earth, and those whose earthly lives have ended.
“We heard Jesus say in the Gospel reading today that ‘anyone that the Father gives me, I will bring to eternal life,’” said Fr. Wendt in his homily. “And do you know when you were given to Jesus? At Baptism. So all of us here, we’re in the hand of Jesus, and we stay connected with all the people who have gone before us. Today, we especially want to pray for them, and also ask them to pray for us, to help keep us strong and to help us be good disciples of Jesus so that we can eventually join them in eternal life.”
Exploring loss, both on a human and a spiritual level, is “important because we have so many students who have lost loved ones,” explained DSCS Principal and Religion Teacher Lynn Sauer.
“Normalizing death and feelings of loss really helps students understand the saving power of Jesus as well,” she said. “Myself and other teachers share who we have lost, and this also helps our students know that they are not alone in these powerful feelings.”
After Mass had concluded, Sauer invited students and teachers to share memories of their loved ones represented on the ofrenda. She went first, displaying a dollar bill and a photograph she had placed there.
“My grandpa worked at the bank, and we used to get to go visit him there once in a while, and he would give us shredded money,” she said of the dollar bill. Showing the photograph, she continued: “This is my grandma — she lived in Arizona and we got to go visit her there. It was fun to visit them at Christmas because it was warm in Arizona — not so warm in Wisconsin. I miss them very much, and I think about them.”
One by one, others came forward. Some wept, some smiled and some did both.
“My great-grandma sewed Barbie clothes for my mom, and my mom passed them on to me,” said one girl as she held a patchwork quilt that her great-grandmother had made. “I was really little when she passed away, so I keep this quilt.”
“My grandpa passed away this year and his name was read out loud at Mass, so it’s a little sad for me today,” said a teacher who showed the baseball cap she had brought. “This is his hat. When we were going through his house, I took it, and now it’s in my house.”
The ofrenda was a joint effort between Sauer’s religion classes and Spanish Teacher Adria Batista’s classes. It was created with items loaned by the students in second grade and older, said Batista, but many of the younger children wanted to participate, too.
“This year, more kids wanted to do it, even the younger kids — they had heard about it from their older siblings,” she said. “We might have to open it up to the whole school next year.”
After sharing items from the ofrenda, the students and teachers bundled up for a walk across the street to the St. Rose Cemetery, where they gathered around the crucifix for a brief prayer service.
“I want you all to think of somebody that you lost, or if you haven’t lost someone special to you, think about someone that shared (in church), and think about all the joyful times that they had together. That’s why it hurts so bad when we lose people, because they are the people that we love to spend time with,” Sauer told them. “It’s OK to cry, but we also want to remember the joyful times.”