The first Thanksgiving in North America may have been celebrated by 16th-century Spanish explorers, but credit usually goes to the pilgrims in 1621. It wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”
Thanksgiving has since become synonymous with the blessings of family and friends. It evokes visions of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, football and, of course, loved ones gathered around a dinner table tucking into a golden turkey and all the trimmings, with some pumpkin pie for dessert.
But for many Americans, military service, school and other obligations keep them away for Thanksgiving. Here, American Catholics who will be far from home — including in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Bolivia and Peru — for the holiday share stories of faith and gratitude, even when loved ones are apart.
Judy Yakir served as an Army MP and medic in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her husband Patrick, a sergeant and MP assigned to the Army Special Forces, is in his second tour in Afghanistan. She’s in Colorado Springs, Colo., and, like many military couples, they won’t be together on Thanksgiving.
She and daughters Mireya, 8, and Auria, 4, will observe Thanksgiving with relatives, and she hopes to contact Patrick by text or computer.
“Our family and friends are our greatest blessings,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “All blessings in our lives come from God, and we are to be thankful not only on Thanksgiving, but always, for God to allow us to receive those blessings.”
Soldiers in Afghanistan will find fellowship with one another.
“We live together, eat together, work together, and go on mission together,” First Lt. Joey Belleza, 24, of Martinez, Calif., said. “Fellowship is inescapable in our line of work. In fact, we will probably be out on mission on Thanksgiving.”
Dangerous times, he said, “engender even more intense” feelings of gratitude. “When we are immersed in adversity, when we are deprived of all control, are the very same times when men of faith echo Peter’s cry as he sank into the Sea of Galilee: ‘Lord, save me!’”
Belleza is thankful to be entrusted with the care of “America’s greatest natural resources — her sons and daughters.”
“To lead American troops on near-daily combat missions is a responsibility both terrifying and gratifying,” he said. “I am humbled to be considered worthy of this honor.”
He’s also thankful for the sacramental life brought by unit chaplain Father Christopher Butera, 35, of the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., who is on loan to the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA. He operates out of Forward Operating Base Walton and visits 13 areas of operation and outlying posts each month with daily and Sunday Masses and confessions. There will be a Thanksgiving Mass and prayer breakfast for everyone on base.
“God has blessed me with this opportunity and honor of being next to the finest men and women in the nation,” Father Butera said.
“I not only get to provide them religious support, but I also get to stand with them every day as they perform their duties and bring the presence of God into some very demanding and strenuous times.”
Staff Sgt. Landon Lombardi, 27, of Jacksonville, Fla., will miss being with his wife Sara and his two children, daughter Sofia and son Dominick.
“After three deployments within five years, I can truly say that I am appreciative of my family and their support,” he said. “Being away makes me realize how grateful I am for them, and one of my blessings is that they are happy, healthy and whole. Do not take for granted the ability to come home after work and spend time with your loved ones.”
Pvt. Will Myers, 19, of Reynoldsburg, Ohio, is a medic who’s grateful that God guides his hands as he helps those under his care.
“It helps me keep a positive attitude throughout the day and to always look at the brighter side of a negative situation,” he said. “Being in Afghanistan has made me appreciate the small things in life that make me happy — a bed to sleep in, hot food, hot showers, a chapel where I can go and have peace for an hour — things we normally take for granted.”
Myers hopes that Americans back home seize the moment as they spend Thanksgiving with their families.
“The blessing that I hope for is that we make it home safely so that we can spend next Thanksgiving with our loved ones,” he said.
Christine Shimrock, director of prison ministries for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, sometimes asks the men and women at Lebanon, Warren and Dayton Correctional Institutions in Ohio to name their blessings.
“I am humbled by the fellowship that takes place as each person offers up — in a place where trust and vulnerability are precious commodities — their feelings of gratitude toward their friends and families and those they have met since their incarceration,” she said. “... There is little more powerful than the surrender of my incarcerated brothers as they recognize that by God’s grace they do have purpose and do serve a God of second chances.”
Except for the turkey dinner, Thanksgiving will be “just another day” in Lebanon Correctional Institution for Larry H., 31.
“Despite being in prison, my faith helps me be grateful by knowing that every day God keeps me safe, my family is in good health and I have food and shelter,” he said. “There are millions of people who are homeless and don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Faith has opened my eyes to God’s blessings and the knowledge that no matter how bad I am in this environment, there are people in this world who are having a harder time. If I could go home this Thanksgiving, I would cherish every moment of it. I would want to help cook the food, sit down with my family and know that not every day is promised, so make every day Thanksgiving and give thanks in everything you do. The most important thing for me would be being able to spend time with those who care for me and in giving them the same love and care in return.”
Kenny R., 41, at Warren Correctional Institution, cherishes memories of a past holiday.
“It was a cold November and Mom had decorated with white icicle lights around the window frames,” he said. “I remember feeling extra warm inside while everything seemed peaceful with the world and I was sharing the experience with loved ones.”
His faith helps him through a holiday that celebrates blessings and being with family.
“The longing that I feel for home is eased by the knowledge that God has a purpose for my life,” Kenny said.
|“On holidays, we are with our religious families. They have become my family in a real way. I have a deep connection to them that I can’t have with other people because we’ve been called to the same life.” — Sister Teresa Maria Leis, a Sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George at St. Francis Convent in Alton, Ill.
It’s been 30 years since Father Jose Herrera has been home for Thanksgiving, and this year, a couple of his sisters plan to visit him at Fort Carson, Colo., where he’s a U.S. Army chaplain.
“Our mom died last year, and otherwise, they’d be going to her house,” he said. “This will be a different Thanksgiving without her.”
Sister Teresa Maria Leis is a Sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George at St. Francis Convent in Alton, Ill. This is her fourth Thanksgiving away from home in Cashton, Wis.
“On holidays, we are with our religious families,” she said. “They have become my family in a real way. I have a deep connection to them that I can’t have with other people because we’ve been called to the same life.”
Father Edward M. Lohse of the Diocese of Erie, Pa., will celebrate Thanksgiving at the Villa Stritch in Rome, a house for diocesan priests who work at the Vatican.
“Our Italian cooks go out of their way to present an authentic Thanksgiving dinner, which is really quite an accomplishment, considering that they have never actually seen one, other than at our residence,” he said.
By the nature of their callings, men and women in vocations often can’t join their families on holidays.
“It’s not a good time to plan a vacation,” Father Herrera said. “Even before I was an Army priest, the community expected to have some kind of Thanksgiving Mass. Now, I am here for the soldiers who can’t be home with their families.”
Father Herrera, a priest in the Diocese of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, grew up in New Mexico in a family of 11 children.
“I’m going to celebrate a Thanksgiving Eve Mass and there will be a pie social,” he said. “The next day, there will be a special meal for soldiers who don’t live off post, and married soldiers are encouraged to invite the others to their homes for Thanksgiving.”
“I think we’re all thankful to be back home,” he said. “A lot of the guys just got back from overseas, so they’re really happy to be back on U.S. soil. Folks are thankful for having jobs. You don’t hear too many complaints from the guys.”
Sister Teresa Marie, 24, who teaches elementary religion at St. Mary’s School in Alton, is thankful for her vocation and the women that she met through the apostolate.
“That deepens every day,” she said. “If I hadn’t entered the convent, I wouldn’t know them, which balances all the goodbyes that you say before you enter. That’s still hard, and that sacrifice doesn’t really go away, but it’s not without other joy. I’m also grateful for the support I get from my family. They have been wonderful with how they embraced my vocation.”
The daily Mass will include special petitions for thanks and blessings. The holiday meal will be followed by a game of “ultimate football.”
Father Lohse will work as usual, Mass will be at 6:30, then dinner. He’ll be in touch with his mother and siblings by Skype.
“Faith teaches us that blessings come from God, who bestows his goodness on us not for any merit of our own, but because of his love for us,” he said. “Gratitude is the appropriate response and helps us to put life’s many other blessings, as well as struggles, in perspective. As always, I am most thankful for my faith, family and my vocation.”
Kathy DeSario is grateful for her studio apartment at Marian Residence for Senior Women in Las Vegas, and for friends she’s made in the housing program run by Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada.
“It’s exciting to be starting a new life,” DeSario told OSV.
Five years ago, health issues caused her to end her job as a classroom aide, leave her apartment and move in with her son and his wife. When their work schedule left her feeling lonely, she said, “My doctor felt that it was best for me to be with people.”
DeSario, 64, moved to Marian Residence in August and, using available services, will transition to a bigger place. She’s keeping busy volunteering to clean up a nearby cemetery and enjoying spending time with her friends.
Her daughter lives in Arizona, and her son will be working on Thanksgiving, so she’s looking forward to sharing the holiday in the community dining hall.
“I’m thankful that God has given me life,” she said. “I’m thankful that Catholic Charities has helped me so much. I’m thankful for the people around me, and that my son will help me any time I need help. I pray to God every day, and if it wasn’t for God, I don’t know where I would be.”
Because of travel expenses, two students at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., will spend Thanksgiving in Massachusetts instead of going home.
Freshman Rosie McNeely, 19, of Lincoln, Neb., was invited to a classmate’s home, and sophomore Gabriella Federico, 19, of Corydon, Ky., will hitch a ride to visit relatives in Boston. They will connect with their families by phone or Skype.
“I’m thankful for all the great people and opportunities God has put in my life,” said McNeely, the 11th of 12 children. “Some of my blessings are my amazing family, my friends and my new friends at college. All of these people formed me into who I am today and I don’t know where I would be without them. I have always been thankful for all that God has given me and my family, but it wasn’t until this year that I truly realized just how much that is. The greatest blessing of all is my Catholic faith. This Thanksgiving I will thank God for all that he has and continues to give me.”
“I love my home. I absolutely love my parents,” said Federico, who is one of seven siblings. “I count my blessings because I have a family, and knowing that is so comforting. Even though we are separated by miles, I have people out there who love me so much and who miss me. Before I had to endure being separated from my family, I simply didn’t appreciate them. Now I know how precious home is and how wonderful it is to be there. I love that God has taught me such a good lesson. There is no way that someone can be a faithful Catholic and not appreciate the simple things in life. My faith has helped me to discover the light in the dark times, and to rejoice at every turn.”
The Catholic Volunteer Network coordinates placements around the world. The volunteers in three of their programs will keep in touch with loved ones back home by phone, email or Skype. They also will have fellowship with other Americans and the local communities.
Rostro de Cristo (Face of Christ) in Ecuador
David Gaillardetz, 22, of Boston, chose to live in poverty and simplicity for a year in Monte Sinai.
“It has shown me more blessings than I ever could have hoped for,” he said.
That includes opportunities to teach English and religion, to work with homeless youths and to find fellowship with other American volunteers and Ecuadorans, who celebrate harvest and other days of gratitude.
“These customs get straight to the heart of the emphasis on gratefulness, family and community that I so love about Thanksgiving,” he said. “My Catholic faith is the source of my worldview that we are all connected and that we are all brothers and sisters.”
Maureen Regan, 22, of Salem, Mass., and Brian Bayer, 22, of Pittsburgh, volunteer in Arbolito.
Regan serves at la Fundacion Padre Amian, a home and clinic for people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy), and runs an after school program. She’ll spend Thanksgiving with her American housemates and friends.
|Steve Widelski works in a leper colony in South Sudan. Photo courtesy of Steven Widelski
“I have many blessings to count, and I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to be here,” she said. “Waking up every morning to the knowledge that I am loved helps me have an attitude of gratitude.”
Bayer, who teaches middle school English, noted that hospitality is one of the pillars of the program. “The thought of spending Thanksgiving without my family is scary, but I have been blessed with a supportive community of friends and neighbors who genuinely love me,” he said. “With that in mind, Thanksgiving may mean more this year than it ever has. Every day is a reminder of God’s work in our lives, how to love stronger and more authentically. As a Catholic, I am comforted by a faith that never fails to remind us that we are not alone in our search to love and be loved.”
Salesian Lay Missioners
Steve Widelski, 38, of Huntington, Ind., is the only American in Tonj, South Sudan, where he works in a leper colony and teaches high school religion. He won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving, but he’ll explain it to his students.
“This year, I am especially thankful for the privilege and opportunity to serve God in yet another mission healing the poor spiritually and physically and bringing myself closer to God,” he said. “I am thankful for my life and the vocation that God has given me to live out the Gospel in words and actions. I’ve always wanted to give something back to God and others for all of my blessings, and living and working in the missions allows me to do that daily. However, I have received so much more from the people and God that I could ever put in.”
Matthew Beben, 23, of Washington, N.J., teaches with the Salesians in Gambella, Ethiopia, and will share a special Thanksgiving meal with the community.
“I may also incorporate Thanksgiving into my classes by asking students what they are thankful for,” he said.
His blessings include a supportive family, friends and his opportunity to attend college, a dream, he said, that’s out of reach for many children.
“Because of responsibilities and commitment, many people are not able to transplant their lives to a distant country for one year and put everything else on hold,” Beben said. “I truly believe that I am here because that’s what God wants for my life at this moment. I’m thankful for the opportunity to live the Gospel to serve the poor.”
Stephanie Schaub, 23, of La Crosse, Wis., teaches English and catechism in Okinawa, Bolivia.
“I have so much to be thankful for — the amazing people here in Bolivia, a wonderful family back home to support me,” she said. “I am thankful for the children and people here who taught me so much. I am even thankful for the struggles I have had because they made me grow and become the person I am today. My own blessings help me to serve others. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ and we need to help each other.”
Cap Corps Volunteers
|“I rejoice in the fact that I have family and loved ones to miss in the first place. This year has given me awareness of the small blessings in my life, like easy access to clean water, efficient public transportation and a comfortable bed.” — Laura Castro, a Cap Corps volunteer doing missionary work in Peru.
On Thanksgiving, Ana Heck, 23, of Plymouth, Minn., will be working with a rural development team in Managua, Nicaragua, but she’ll share a dinner with a community of people who are engaged in social justice.
“I’m especially thankful for the time here, for the friends and other Cap Corps volunteers, and for the support of my family and friends in the United States,” she said. “A lot of support and resources have been invested in me, and I am grateful to have had so many opportunities. One motivation to volunteer was to accompany and support others who are trying to realize their own dreams.”
Laura Castro of Westfield, Mass., works with high-risk boys in Lima, Peru. She’ll spend Thanksgiving with European volunteers.
“I rejoice in the fact that I have family and loved ones to miss in the first place,” she said. “This year has given me awareness of the small blessings in my life, like easy access to clean water, efficient public transportation and a comfortable bed.”
Castro, 23, was inspired by her parents to be grounded in gratitude and trust in God. “Service has always been a part of my life and the experiences I have inspire me to be more grateful and aware of my blessings,” she said.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.