Written by Art Petrosemolo
This past December I decided to write about the holiday traditions of the Plain families in Lancaster County for the Lititz Record, Ephrata Review and Elizabethtown Advocate.
I thought it would be an easy story to write. I have met several Amish and Mennonite families since moving to Sycamore Springs last year. I got some help from Garden Spot Village chaplain Chet Yoder and his staff. Chet also introduced me to a member of Mennonite Central Committee. In the process, I learned about a restored, historic 1850s Mennonite Meetinghouse north of Bowmansville that was used for a Christmas Carol service and I was invited to attend. As I continued to research, I learned about the Moravians (also part of the Reformation Anabaptist Movement) and their Christmas Vigil and Lovefeast and wanted to include it in the story.
I’m what is called a “cradle Catholic” although my wife doesn’t like the term. It means we were born into a Roman Catholic family and have practiced Catholicism for our entire lives. I can’t remember ever, I mean ever, attending or worshiping at any Protestant church.
So, the first Monday in December, accompanied by Chet Yoder as well as Garden Spot Village friends Bob and Bernie Collins, we headed out to Alleghenyville for the Mennonite Carol Service. The building is just 35 x 25 feet with no plumbing, electricity or heat. It is – literally – in the middle of nowhere. But at 7pm a Mennonite song leader – with 100 church members and guests, shoulder to shoulder on the hard wooden benches – led everyone in song including traditional Christmas carols in English and carols known by only church members and sung in German.
I had permission to take photos if I would be unobtrusive. Well, unobtrusive has become my middle name.
The interior of the meetinghouse was lit with the soft glow of real candles and the rich voices of the participants could be heard, I am sure, a mile away on the cold, early December night (pictured above).
The Collins and the Petrosemolos were quiet on the ride home, just replaying the service in our minds and marveling at what a great start to the holiday season. For me, it was a rush to the computer when I got home to open the photo files and find the best images for the newspaper story. With my most expensive and complicated cameras in tow, I had taken more than 100 images. But my best, absolutely best, photos came from my new Apple Iphone 8 plus. Go figure!
Two weeks later as the story was waiting in the queue to run, I decided to do a separate story on the special Moravian Christmas vigil which is offered six times by the Lititz Moravian Church as a gift to the community. There are 500 seats in the church and admission (free) is by ticket. Tickets go fast and the church is crowded for every vigil.
Well, as you probably know, the Moravians are no “johnny-come-lately” congregation, having been in Lititz since the mid-1700s. The vigil also is a lovefeast harking back to early Christian traditions where meals were shared in common by the community.
We attended the second vigil on December 17, again with Bob and Bernie Collins.
The Moravian church is simple but elegant…simply elegant! I spoke to the Church’s newsletter editor, music director, singers and pastor and the story was surprisingly easy to write. It ran front-page in the Lititz Record December 20 as well as in the Ephrata Review and the Elizabethtown Advocate.
I knew that I needed an image to crystalize the service in the minds of my readers and focused on the final hymn – “Sing Hallelujah, Praise the Lord” – where all the worshipers hold lighted candles above their heads and reach out to the heavens praising Christ as the “light of the world.”
I was assigned to a windowsill in the balcony of the church and told not to roam. Again, my most expensive and complicated cameras were around my neck and I began photographing as soon as the darkened church – with the choir singing “Silent Night” in German – began to brighten with the glow from the Moravian star hanging in the sanctuary.
I photographed non-stop, pausing occasionally to let the hymns (anthems) and carols from the senior and junior choirs and the orchestra wash over me. It was magnificent and gave me goosebumps.
So, did I get the photo? I sure did. As the dieners (from the German word for servers) passed out candles, I began to wander a little from my windowsill (I figured by that point the Moravians weren’t going to throw me out) and found just the right angle. Again – with the best photos coming from my iPhone 8 plus held high above my head with an extension stick – I captured the entire church illuminated in candlelight. When the singing stopped, you could feel the warmth and sacredness of the event.
As I walked to the car and drove home, I truly felt blessed that not only have I been exposed to a number of new Christian churches who have embraced me and helped me in my research for newspaper and magazine stories, I felt a real sense of what the Amish, Mennonite and Moravians mean when they say – and with no hint of a smile on their face – that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” So true.