June 12, 2020

Thoughts of family and friends fill first Communion memories

Mary Ellen Cestaro, a member of Holy Family Parish in New Albany, holds up her first Communion banner. (Submitted photo)

Mary Ellen Cestaro, a member of Holy Family Parish in New Albany, holds up her first Communion banner. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: The Criterion invited readers to share their special memories of their first Communion and also to share the special meaning that the Eucharist has in their lives. We continue their stories in this week’s issue. See Part One and Part Three)

By John Shaughnessy

There are times from our pasts that we can still see and feel clearly, no matter how many years have passed. And the people who were at the center of these moments continue to live in our hearts and our minds.

For Mary Ellen Cestaro, one of the most poignant times in her life occurred when she was in the second grade at St. Mary-of-the-Knobs School in Floyd County.

“My mother had just passed away from cancer on March 19th, and nine days later I turned 8 years old,” Cestaro recalls. “It was a very sad time of my life.”

It would also become a defining time of faith and friendship for her, a time when she would also start to heal and have hope.

“As my class began to prepare for our first Communion in May, I began to feel happy and excited,” Cestaro says. “My friends Linda Smith and Rose Messmer, along with many others in our class, helped me to feel friendship and love. We practiced the beautiful song, ‘Oh Lord, I Am Not Worthy,’ to sing on the day we would receive our Lord for the first time.”

She also remembers the white dress her godmother made her for that special day, the veil with lace that she wore, and the gifts of a prayer book and a rosary. Yet, most of all, she remembers how she felt when she received Communion for the first time.

“I felt Jesus come to me in a special way that totally filled my being with his love. I can remember it so well even to this day—how my life was changed, and I didn’t feel alone.”

Sixty-four years have passed since that moment, but the feeling hasn’t changed for Cestaro.

“I still feel a great overwhelming love when receiving Communion,” says Cestaro, now a member of Holy Family Parish in New Albany. “Jesus comes to me and feeds me with his love and spirit. It is a constant in my life that gives me strength during all circumstances.

“During times of illness, or now with the pandemic, I have been watching Mass on the air each day and saying the rosary. I can still receive a spiritual Communion by praying that Jesus will come into my heart and renew me, and this keeps me close to our Lord.”

When mischief gave way to a minor miracle

Diane Smith has a wealth of wonderful memories from her more than 25 years of preparing children for their first Communion. One of her best memories involves a large class she worried about the most.

“We had 18 children that year,” recalls Smith, a catechist for the second-grade students of St. Benedict Parish in Terre Haute. “In that class, we had several boys who were known for mischief during class—being under the desk or hanging upside down from their chair.

“So I was a little worried about what was going to happen at the first Communion Mass as we gathered all of the children around the altar during the offertory. We tried as hard as we could to keep the boys from standing next to each other but, of course, that did not happen. To my surprise and relief, they stood with hands folded and were attentive and reverent.”

While every class she has prepared has been different, one quality connects the students through the years.

“What never changes is the children’s joy and anticipation of ‘making’ first Communion,” Smith says. “As we prepare throughout the school year, it is fun to watch as the children grow in their understanding and desire to receive Jesus into their hearts.”

She especially looks forward to the retreats for the children and their parents—times during which they make banners that will mark each child’s pew on the day they receive the sacrament.

“We also make the handprints that will be a part of the altar cloth, and we bake and eat bread together with family and classmates in preparation of receiving the bread that is Jesus. We laugh and come together more fully as we eagerly anticipate the Mass that will be our special Mass.”

The coronavirus crisis has changed the traditions for this year’s group. Classes have been taught online. Banners and bread have been made at home.

Smith admits the changes made her “a little sad,” but she is uplifted by the news that the group will receive their first Communion on June 14.

“The kids are excited, and so am I.

“I remembered what I tell the children that first Communion really means. It is about knowing that when we receive the Eucharist, we receive the greatest gift we could ever receive—Jesus. I know they will receive Jesus into their hearts because they have waited, and they are ready.”

Waiting with anticipation

The memories surrounding his first Communion remain crystal clear for Kevin Wagner.

As the 10th of 11 children in his family, he still savors the “very special study time” that he had with his mom as she helped him prepare for receiving the sacrament.

“I received much attention,” says Wagner, a member of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Fortville. “She and I together

learned all the prayers that were required.”

He also can’t forget how his oldest brother’s car accident had an impact on when he could receive the Eucharist for the first time.

Those memories take Wagner back to 1965, toward the end of the Second Vatican Council.

“Our parish was very open to all the changes that came out of that historic meeting,” says Wagner, about his childhood parish in Michigan. “One of the changes that they made for my class was that instead of the children learning all of the required prayers in our school, we were to study at home with our parents to prepare for the sacrament.

“We then would have our first holy Communion with our family, and then later the entire class would have the traditional ‘First Solemn Communion.’ ”

Being the first student in his

second-grade class to learn all the prayers, Wagner was excited to become the first of his classmates to receive the sacrament. Then came his brother’s car accident.

“His jaw was wired shut in order to heal,” Wagner recalls. “I anxiously waited and prayed for him to get better. I think it was six- to eight weeks later when I was able to have my first holy Communion with my six older brothers and my four sisters and my mom and dad.

“Having to wait those additional weeks made the sacrament even more meaningful and special to me.”

(More stories will be shared in next week’s issue.)

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