Irish Heritage Brought to Life with St. Brigid Feast at St. Mary of the Pines

by Kelly Phelan Powell

Kim Long, Director of Religious Education (DRE) at St. Mary of the Pines Parish in Shreveport, is one of those rare and wonderful souls who dream big, then roll up their sleeves and get to work. “I was the rabble rouser,” she laughed, describing the beginnings of the annual celebration of the Feast of St. Brigid of Kildare, now in its third year, that has become one of the parish’s most anticipated events. She and a committed group of women volunteers have carved out a fun, meaningful new tradition for people of Catholic faith and Irish ancestry.

As DRE, Long took part in planning the parish’s multicultural festival. As St. Mary of the Pines has a well-established Hispanic population, Latin and Hispanic traditions are a big part of the celebration. And while everyone enjoyed the festival, parishioners whose families were less recent immigrants of European origin felt that they had little to contribute. Long said it was parishioner Anne Eid who gave her the idea while they were discussing a St. Joseph’s altar. “When are we going to do something for the Irish? My maiden name is Kennedy!” Eid said, and the beginnings of the Feast of St. Brigid took root.

With permission from Fr. Francis Kamau, Long and a group of volunteers, including Mary Cadwell, Rachel Cobb, Jennifer Lee, Cindy McGowan and Mary Alice Owen, among others, formed a committee and began not only planning a celebration, but also learning more about their Irish heritage, language, folk songs and recipes. They referred to themselves as “Daughters of Brigid” and met regularly to practice céilí, traditional dances in which dancers arrange themselves in formations of two to 16 people.

The historical details of Brigid’s life are notoriously difficult to establish, but according to Hugh de Blacam’s essay in “The Saints of Ireland,” she was born around 450 A.D. The illegitimate child of a pagan chieftain named Dubthach and his Christian slave, Broicsech, Brigid was probably baptized and reared in the Catholic faith by her mother. At around age 10, her father removed her from her mother’s slave quarters and raised her in his own household.

Brigid took Dubthach’s riches and gave generously to the poor. Enraged, her father threatened to sell her to the King of Leinster. But the king, a Christian, understood her charity and convinced Dubthach to free his daughter. Once free, she was expected to marry, but instead, she marred her own face to make herself less desirable to would-be husbands. Brigid and her companions organized communal consecrated religious life for women in Ireland. Her community eventually settled in what we know today as Kildare, or “Church of the Oak,” after the monastery she founded there.

Long and the other Daughters of Brigid have incorporated many traditions into the feast celebration. For instance, during the Mass processional, the women parishioners of Irish ancestry form the “Court of Brigid,” with adult women wearing sashes bearing their family’s county of origin and little girls donning blue crushed velvet capes after Brigid’s own legendary “cape of blue.” The children also carry bouquets of flowers to place around the icon of St. Brigid.

The Mass for the Feast of St. Brigid includes several other uniquely Brigidine components. Included in the processional is a Brigid’s Cross, traditionally woven from rushes. Long and parishioner Roishene Johnson recited the Mass readings in both English and Gaeilge (the Irish language, often referred to as “Irish Gaelic”). The sanctuary was adorned in green, with an oak leaf, an acorn and a flame representing Kildare, the seed of knowledge and the love of Christ, respectively.

At the céilí following Mass, Long and a number of others performed the legend of Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley as “mummers,” performers who tell a story through song, dance and rhyme. Tim Glennon and Ceara Johnson played and sang Irish songs, and the Daughters of Brigid danced a céilí as well. No Catholic celebration is complete without delicious food, and Irish favorites like Limerick ham, brown bread, cabbage, potatoes and sausage were a huge hit with children and adults.

“Brigid is very much a saint for our time,” Long said, emphasizing St. Brigid’s traditions of hospitality, environmentalism and the pursuit of knowledge, all of which are particularly important in the tumultuous present.

Anyone interested in joining the Daughters of Brigid and/or volunteering for the Feast of St. Brigid in January 2018 can reach Long at celticdre1@bellsouth.net, or (318) 687-5121.

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