Joseph Marquis was barely 5 that Christmas of 1953, yet he sensed that something wasn’t right with Santa Claus.  

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Father Marquis blesses St. Nicholas Institute participant John Bloomberg during a liturgy. Courtesy of Father Joseph Marquis

Didn’t he look like the same man who had just gone inside this rundown cabin? What about that sagging fake beard and cheap red suit? And where were the reindeer? 

But the boy approached him anyway and asked for an electric train and that his father, who was sick with tuberculosis, would come home from the sanitarium. 

“All of a sudden the man’s eyes changed,” he told Our Sunday Visitor 59 years later. “I don’t know if it was the lights from the trees or if his eyes were tearing up, but all of a sudden, he had the eyes of Santa Claus. And he told me that he would be praying for us, and he gave me a hug and a windup toy.” 

Outside, the boy declared, “That wasn’t the real Santa.” 

He didn’t know that they were too poor to go into Detroit to see a more impressive department store Santa.  

So his mother explained that Santa was so busy that he needed helpers, and this was a helper.  

It was a job, she added, like being a cowboy or a policeman. 

Young Joseph turned to his twin brother Richard and said, “Someday I will be Santa’s helper, too.”

Embodying the character

He kept that promise 41 years ago when he became a department store and parade Santa, an author and illustrator of a book about Santa, appeared in documentaries and movies as Santa and received numerous awards for being Santa, including being inducted into the Santa Claus Hall of Fame. 

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Father Marquis, founder of the St. Nicholas Institute

He also became a deacon and hospital chaplain, and seven years ago was ordained a priest. 

Father Marquis, 63, is pastor of Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church in Livonia, Mich., and the founder of the St. Nicholas Institute, which in October held its first professional Santa training in the spirit of St. Nicholas. 

He founded it in response to Pope Benedict XVI proclaiming the Year of Faith. 

“I wondered what I could personally do to foster a deeper awareness of a living faith experienced as love received and revealed as grace with joy,” he said about the pope’s call. “After prayerful reflection, it became clear to me that St. Nicholas of Myra embodied all of the above characteristics.”

The real St. Nick

St. Nicholas, whose feast day is Dec. 6, was a fourth-century bishop known for giving gifts. Among many other patronages, he is the patron of children and evolved as numerous cultural embodiments of Santa Claus.  

Christmas in June
The sick little girl watching Detroit’s J.L. Hudson & Co. Thanksgiving Day Parade said to her grandfather, “I wish Christmas would be forever!” 
 
As she later lay dying, her grandfather summoned Father Joseph Marquis to give her a final Christmas … in June.
 
Father Marquis arrived as Santa Claus and found the pediatric unit decked out for Christmas and the staff dressed as elves. 
 
He visited each child, and when he came to the little girl, her eyes opened wide and her face was filled with joy. They sang “Silent Night” at the end of the visit.
 
“All of a sudden it dawned on me that everything I had done before and after this minute is irrelevant,” he said.
 

Father Marquis founded the institute so that professional Santas may be prayerfully open to the true spirit of Christmas. 

“Many of the 17 men who came to the symposium will probably never portray the historical figure,” he said. “Two Baptist men who came knew about St. Nicholas in a sketchy way, but for the first time in their lives they realized what they were entrusted with.” 

The selfless life of St. Nicholas was the inspiration for the core values of the institute: to be open to the Christmas spirit, or the Holy Spirit, that animated the life of the original “Santa Claus”; to exercise compassion for those in spiritual or material poverty, the sick and the forgotten; and to treat children with the same integrity, sensitivity and unconditional love that characterizes jolly old St. Nicholas. 

Father Marquis blessed participants with manna (a clear liquid) from St. Nicholas’s relics and gave them replicas of a bishop’s ring. 

“In the prayer, I said that each was entrusted with the legacy of St. Nicholas and that while they are not shepherding a huge flock, they are shepherding small children, and that’s a very serious obligation,” he said. “They all got choked up. It’s funny how St. Nicholas can read into the hearts of people.”

Happy endings

About that Christmas of 1953: Father Marquis’s mother was hospitalized with complications from a difficult pregnancy, a great aunt came to take care of the boys and strangers brought a Christmas tree and small gifts.  

He didn’t get the train he wanted, but his brother was born on Christmas Day, and soon afterward, his father was well enough to come home. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.