Project pairs first communicants in need with outfits for special day
by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sister Carol Ann Petersen, OSB, still remembers the white dress with lilies of the valley she
wore for her own first Communion and other special occasions in second grade.
As every Catholic family knows, special dress clothes for both boys and girls are customary for this milestone occasion.
As a longtime school principal and now as director of the Keeler Women’s Center in Kansas City, Kansas, Sister Carol Ann knows those dressy outfits don’t come without substantial sacrifice by some families.
“There are expectations about the clothing and the children looking nice,” she said. “I think parents will sacrifice putting food on the table to buy a pair of shoes that need to be white.”
That’s why she was thrilled to see Patricia Kowal step in with a plan to match families’ first Communion clothing needs with assistance from someone willing and able to help.
Kowal, a parishioner of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Shawnee, volunteers at Keeler.
Working with a Scripture and journaling group last year, she met a woman whose daughter’s first Communion was coming up.
Like many parents, the woman wanted to have a cake and a nice event to celebrate this important moment in her daughter’s journey of faith, but her resources were very limited.
Her child already had a dress, but still needed shoes and a veil.
Kowal, who has two daughters herself, figured she could come up with a veil, but started hitting thrift stores in search of shoes.
Realizing other families must be in the same boat, Kowal expressed her interest at the various shops she visited in picking up appropriate items that might be able to go to a family in need.
When one woman heard what she was doing, she offered her help in making a veil.
So Kowal was soon able to deliver a veil, a couple of shoe options and even a gift from the veil-maker to the first communicant when she next saw the mother at Keeler.
“She was so excited,” said Kowal. “Everything was coming together. It was such a simple little thing. It made a difference in how she felt.”
Now, Kowal hopes to be able to help more families of young girls and boys the same way.
She’s already had several offers of help — ranging from offers to shop for a young girl by a woman who had no daughters herself, to financial donations.
She’s also hoping to get the word out to Catholic school principals, religious education directors and families that this type of help exists.
Kowal doesn’t want a child to go into the sacrament feeling inappropriately dressed or for a family to hold off on it because they feel they just can’t afford all that goes with it.
For those uncomfortable asking for help, or for having members of their own parish or school know they need assistance, said Sister Carol Ann, this project is designed to make it possible for the donation to come from a different parish. Families don’t even have to go through their school or pastor; they can reach out directly by calling Kowal at (913) 205-8788.
Nor is the program limited to the Kansas City area, but can hopefully help people in rural communities as well.
Sister Carol Ann believes Kowal is the perfect person to make a success of this initiative.
“She’s very organized, she’s very generous,” she said. “She speaks Spanish.”
And the need is real.
While first Communion costs seem negligible to wealthier families, every Catholic family knows it’s a memorable day — and a big deal.
Sister Carol Ann knows from her teaching days that children are very aware of being dressed differently from their peers and naturally pick up on the financial stress their parents are experiencing.
But kids shouldn’t need to worry about the clothing component at all, she said.
“It is such a special occasion — it’s a sacrament — and surely clothes are not the most important thing about the day,” said Sister Carol Ann, “but clothes can surely make the child feel special and feel part of the bigger church and part of the group.”
Because it broke Kowal’s heart to know that families are struggling to make that a reality, she hopes to pair people together to ease that burden.
“I just want people to think back and remember their first Communion and how special it was,” said Kowal. “We just want to make sure everybody in our community can experience that joy.”