Wreath in the Window of the Maryknoll Seminary

Christmas is almost upon us! As my favorite holiday of the year, I spend much of my time with my loved ones and building anticipation for the big day. At the start of this Christmas season, I began wondering how Maryknoll missioners end up spending their holidays while scattered throughout the world. I delved into the archive and spoke directly with several Maryknollers about their experiences, and I have compiled a few of their tales here. You will find stories from the Maryknoll Sisters, Maryknoll Lay Missioners, and the Maryknoll Fathers that feature countries from around the world. Join me as I discover what exactly is a Missioner’s Christmas.

Maryknoll Sisters

We will start our Christmas tales with the experience of two Maryknoll Sisters from all the way back in World War II. Shortly after the start of the war many Japanese Americans on the West Coast were put into internment camps, including two Japanese American Sisters named Bernadette Yoshimochi and Mary Susanna (Anna Otome) Hayashi. These Sisters were given the opportunity to return to Maryknoll instead of going into one of the camps, but the women choose to stay with the people that needed them most: their congregations.

The two Sisters would spend the next three years at the Manzanar Internment camp, where their works would create a tight-knit community. Sr. Hayashi would often write to Mother Mary Joseph about her experiences in the camp, and each Christmas she would document what they did. In the excerpts shown below (transcribed as written), she writes about the generosity of the community during Christmas time. Despite being confined to a guarded camp in the Western US, adults and children alike would offer their time and resources to decorating, making food, and putting on plays.

Srs. Mary Susanna Hayashi (right) and Bernadette Yoshimochi (left) at the Manzanar Internment Camp, 1942

Our Church faculty were very busy just before Christmas preparing these people for baptism and also decorating the tree and et cetera. The little children put on their entertainment for parents and friends and this took some time in practicing. This year we had something different than last year. The church staff presented the audience with a play in Japanese. It was very good and all enjoyed it very much.

Sister Mary Susanna, Letter to Mother Mary Joseph, 1943

People were so generous to us we had Children’s Christmas tree program in the afternoon. Customs were prepared only by Manzanar Things which we can get at hand. St. Joseph had army blanket. Lady’s hair net was his beard. Like wise all other actors and actresses brought their own things. It was really interesting program. It was more enjoyed than spent lots money. Santa Clause gave away gifts and stockings to all Catechism class children and the visiting children got stockings with toys and candy cookies. Donut were served to all people. All were done by donations of kind benefactors.

Sister Mary Susanna, Letter to Mother Mary Joseph, 1942

Nativity Play in Kyoto, 1957

Maryknoll Lay Missioners

Our next Christmas story will feature the experience of a Maryknoll Lay Missioner spending his first Holiday on mission. Jason Gehrig and his wife joined the Lay Missioner program in 2000 and would find Bolivia as their new home. Jason kept a journal of his time there, including many insights into his mission work. The first Christmas away was a time of reflection for him, as he spent the holiday with his wife and fellow lay missioners. To the right is an excerpt from his journal, reflecting on what he did for his holiday season in 2001 and showing his gratitude for the experiences he had.

Jason Gehrig in Bolivia

Thank you for Christmas cane cookie made by [my wife], and country Christmas music from [her sister], and for a short phone call with my family and for loving them all enough to have a true, burning sense of missing and loving them. For Christmas day feasts with our fellow missioners in Puno, for singing Christmas songs over a fire…

Jason Gehrig, Bolivia Journal, 2001

Maryknoll Fathers

Christmas Altar at Venard

Our final set of Christmas tales will come directly from a few of our Maryknoll Fathers. I had the pleasure of interviewing Frs. Joseph La Mar, John Lange, Rodrigo Ulloa-Chavarry, and James Najmowski about their Christmas experiences while on mission. Below you will find clips of their the interviews, each about 2 to 4 minutes long. The clips discuss Christmas traditions, what the holiday season is like abroad, and what makes Christmas unique in places across the world. I will say no more, and let you hear directly from the source what these four Maryknoll Fathers think about a Missioner’s Christmas.

Christmas at Maryknoll, 1946

Fr. Joseph La Mar

There certainly was no commercialism because, there was no commerce, there was no money, there was nothing there for them to celebrate a Christmas down there as we would up here. It was courtesy, it was basically… love that was shared. And they were great gifts. The differences were so pronounced that it made me think an awful lot about… how we celebrate Christmas in different ways.

Fr. Joseph La Mar on the lack of commercialism in Guatemala

Girls waiting for first Holy Communion, Guatemala, 2001, Photographer: Sean Sprague

Fr. John Lange

People came in huge numbers, and wherever we were. They have a great tradition of singing and dancing. They can pick you up and make you really feel alive! People have an amazing gift for celebration on Christmas and Easter, especially those two big feasts.

Fr. John Lange on how African Christians celebrate Christmas

Christmas Mass, Kenya

Fr. Rodrigo Ulloa-Chavarry

There were Christmas Trees, there were decorations, Christmas lights, pictures of Santa Claus, but because it is not a Christian culture the atmosphere is different, almost like a normal day…

I do recall the Church being decorated, well lit with a Christmas tree, the nativity set beautifully arranged. And you had commuters passing by who stopped, looked, observed, and wonder what’s happening in that Church. We know that Christmas is about Joy, and I hope that those people who pass by perceive the Joy that Jesus gives us.

Fr. Rodrigo Ulloa-Chavarry on Christmas decorations in China

Christmas Tree in the Rotunda of the Maryknoll Seminary, 1994

Fr. James Najmowski

Well, this is Jesus’s birthday, so we should have a birthday cake. So we got a big birthday cake… And we got two big, huge pigs. I didn’t think pigs were expensive to buy but they were, three or four hundred dollars each. So, anybody who came [to the main Mass], we fed people. We had pork, we had rice cakes, and we had regular cake… they enjoyed it, made them enjoy the day.

Fr. James Najmowski on the Christmas meal for his parish

Fr. Jim Najmowski and Fr. Mike Duggan saying Christmas Mass, An Jung Parish, Korea, 1989
Christmas Pageant, Korea