Local woman sews special garments for seminarians, clergy
Story by Reagan Scott
SEWARD (SNR) - St. Gregory the Great Seminary (SGGS) in Seward will celebrate “Cassock Day” Oct. 29, a yearly tradition that has been celebrated at the seminary since it opened in 1998.
On Cassock Day, the 11 men who joined the seminary this year will be honored. Of those who entered, 10 will be able to wear their cassock and Roman collar for the first time. The 11th member of the class is a Franciscan brother who recently received his habit.
According to seminary rector Father Jeffrey Eickhoff, before the Second Vatican Council, seminaries would hold a Tonsure ceremony to celebrate their new seminarians. After a trial period, seminarians would be allowed to wear clerical attire for the first time, and get their hair cut as a symbol of entering the clerical state.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton still celebrates the Tonsure ceremony for new seminarians.
After Vatican II, Cassock Day emerged as a new tradition, and SGGS brought the tradition over from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. where Lincoln seminarians received their undergraduate degrees before St. Gregory the Great opened in 1998.
Now that the seminarians at SGGS have been in school for almost two and a half months, their trial period is nearly complete.
“After the seminarians have gone this long, Cassock Day is our way of saying that you are fully entered in as a seminarian, and you can now wear clerical apparel,” Father Eickhoff said.
In the past, the seminary would have to order cassocks from the east coast, but problems with proper fitting could take months to rectify. Finally, then-rector Msgr. John Folda, now Bishop Folda of the Diocese of Fargo, N.D., asked Mary Hardesty, who was the secretary and bookkeeper at SGGS, if she thought that the cassocks could be made in the diocese.
With the help of Judy Vandenberg, the two came up with a new pattern for the cassocks themselves. They began making cassocks for the seminarians 13 years ago in 2004. While Hardesty is no longer able to help, Vandenberg has been making them ever since.
Making the cassocks is a very time-consuming process, which Vandenberg said can take her anywhere from 20 to 25 hours. The steps include cutting the fabric, sewing the garment most of the way, and then making time for fitting and making alterations before she adds the buttons and extra details. A woman named Mary Hrnicek helps Vandenberg and presses the garments while she sews them.
The number of cassocks needed every year varies, as seminarians can receive cassocks as gifts from their parishes, families, or from men who leave the seminary. While Vandenberg typically averages eight or nine cassocks each year, this year’s class only requires two.
When she isn’t working on completing cassocks, Vandenberg may be sewing for any one of the other religious orders for which she now makes garments.
When Vandenberg was the secretary and bookkeeper at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Seward, Mother Joan Paul C.K. asked her if she would be willing to sew habits for the Christ the King Sisters.
Now, Vandenberg also makes habits for the Marian Sisters, the Knights of the Holy Eucharist and for the Ad Gentes Missionaries, a religious missionary community of brothers and sisters based in Nigeria and the U.S. that Father Vitalus Anyanike of the Omaha Archdiocese founded in 2003.
Vandenberg and Hardesty were also responsible for making chasubles for all of the priests in the diocese so that they have vestments to wear for specials events when they all concelebrate together, such as the Chrism Mass or ordinations.
Four years ago, Vandenberg quit her job at St. Vincent’s to sew full time.
“I never imagined that I would be sewing as much as I am for the Church,” she said. “When I see someone put on a garment that I’ve made, they’re putting on Christ, and that’s very humbling.”
Preparation for Cassock Day begins a week and a half before the event when the seminarians pray a novena to Saint John Vianney, the patron saint of priests. During the week leading up to the celebration, the seminarians participate in fun activities which, according to Father Eickhoff, help to emphasize brotherhood for the young men.
All of the seminarians’ cassocks will be blessed on the evening before Cassock Day at an event for their immediate families. After the blessing and evening prayer, they will all get to enjoy a cookout together.
On Sunday Oct. 29, the seminarians will be able to wear their cassocks for the first time at a special Mass.
The Mass, which begins at 1 p.m., is open to the public and will have a reception following.
Father Eickhoff said, “The tradition of Cassock Day here at St. Gregory the Great Seminary is a wonderful way to continue the traditions of the Church. It also serves as an event that celebrates the brotherhood we like our seminarians to experience while they are here, but also to prepare them for the brotherhood of the priesthood.”