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Our Lady Star of The Sea Nativity, Lake Hopatcong, NJ

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Traveling East, in search of The Nativity…

 
The miniature Nativity of Our Lady Star of The Sea, Lake Hopatcong, NJ.
 
Our Lady Star of The Sea, Lake Hopatcong, NJ., is nestled amidst beautiful Fall foliage. 
A stutue of Julien Dubuque—a Quebecois pioneer that first settled in the homonymous city on the Mississippi in 1785—graces the entrance of the charming Hotel Julien, my home-away-from-home on my way East.

I'm heading to New England, but here I am, in the Hotel Julien mezzanine, talking with Candice Chaloupka and Suzanne Wright, authors of St. Mary's, The Finest Church West of the Mississippi (see Tharsella Pins says a tearful goodbye to St. Mary's in Dubuque, Iowa).

It's never easy saying a last goodbye to someone you love, or, in this case, a beloved church, and Candice found solace writing a book with the help of her journalist cousin Suzie. I look forward to bringing you our talk in the near future.

As I am to sharing with you the beautiful stained glass Nativity of St. Mary's. The Archdiocese of Dubuque kindly opened St. Mary's closed doors for me, and from 10 a.m. to about 2:00 p.m., I found myself surrounded by the incredible beauty of St. Mary's sacred art.

As if shooting at St. Mary's; meeting Candice and Suzie; and visiting St. Luke's United Methodist Church to admire its priceless Tiffany stained glass windows wasn't enough, knocking on Tharsella Pins' door was the icing on the cake.

"T," as she is known to her family and friends, welcomes me with a big smile and her indefatigable energy and great sense of humor that has kept the twinkle in her eyes for these 101 years. With nephew Daniel by her side, she reminisces about St. Mary's and poses for her picture in her antique settee. I hope to bring you photos of my visit with this extraordinary woman in the near future.

 
This view of the Nativity window, Our Lady Star of The Sea Nativity, Lake Hopatcong, NJ., gives you an idea of how really small the depiciton of The Nativity really is—but no less beautiful. 
Miss "T," who has an expansive view of Dubuque from her window on a bluff high above the city, points out St. Mary's steeple that towers above the skyline. But soon I'm heading south, following the Mississippi to picturesque Bellevue, because Candice tells me that St. Joseph's Catholic Church has a beautiful Nativity stained glass window.

I love the winding drive along the meandering Mississippi, and besides enjoying the colorful Fall foliage, my thoughts turn to Mark Twain who once was a captain on the river. I still treasure my frayed Greek Classics Illustrated of The Prince and the Pauper, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer, but how am I to guess that Interstate 80 will bring me within 1.5 miles of Mark Twain's home in Hartford, Connecticut?

But I'm getting ahead of the story.

I knock on the door of St. Joseph's rectory in Bellevue, and the priest opens the door. "Hello Father. Candice Chaloupka told me about St. Joseph's Nativity window and I would like to photograph it for my blog and book."

"Alexis? I'm Father Phillip, from the Dyersville Basilica. I remember John Steger helping you taking all those photos of the carved wood Nativity…"

It's a small world. Rev. Phillip Kruse, who has just been appointed to minister the parishes of St. Catherine, St. Donatus, and St. Joseph, welcomes me, takes me to the church, shows me where all the lights are, and says he's so very sorry he has to leave because of a prior appointment. I look forward to talking to Father Phillip next time I'm in Mark Twain country.

Or that, right next door I would also get to visit the home of Margaret Beecher Stowe, the author of that other Classic Illustrated favorite, Uncle Tom's Cabin?

 
St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, said to have created the first Nativity scene in Grecio, Italy, in 1223—Stained glass window, Our Lady Star of the Sea, Lake Hopatcong, NJ. 
Our Lady Star of the Sea

Between Bellevue and Hartford there are hundreds of miles of incredible scenery, but only one Nativity, at Our Lady Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church, Lake Hopatcong (pronounced Ho-pát-kong), New Jersey.

As mariners are guided into port by the shining of a star, so Christians are guided to heaven by Mary.
—Saint Thomas Aquinas


Our Lady Star of The Sea Catholic Church is nestled among the foliage that lines the shores of Hopatcong Lake and turns Espanong Road into a polychrome canopy. The deep reds that line the road are echoed by a bush and tree that border the church (see photo, above left).

I enter the church offices in the lower level, but finding no one I walk outside again, under the square bell tower and enter the church. It's empty and dark, lit only by the glowing stained glass. I walk down the left aisle, then back again on the opposite side, but where is the Nativity? I remember seeing an image of what must have been a large Nativity window, but all I can see is miniature scenes surrounded by floral motifs set in yard wide by fifteen-inch high panes…

"Would you like some light?"

It's Father Christopher Muldoon, Pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish, who saw a visitor, walked over from the Rectory across the street, and is standing by the door.

"Our Lady Star of the Sea," he says, "was named after Lake Hopatcong, which is less than only a half mile away, and to distinguish us from other area churches, like the one in Sparta called The Lady of the Lake. The Virgin Mary, of course, is the Maris Stella, the Star of the Sea, the guiding light of mariners—and believers.

  
Rev. Christopher Muldoon, Pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish. 
"Our church, which was build in 1959, has all those stained glass windows dedicated to Our Lady and her apparitions in various parts of the world. There are a lot of blues and reds in the windows, so they're quite colorful.

"Our church as always been a place where people can come and pray and find peace."

For the next hour-and-a-half, I'm shooting in Our Lady Star of the Sea, but I'm facing a problem I have not run into before: the windows on the opposite wall are mirrored in that of The Nativity, causing unsightly reflections that are magnified because The Nativity itself is so small.

I'm here alone, with no helpful assistant to hold a scrim behind me, blocking the light from the windows on the opposite wall.

But, wait a moment: I may not have an assistant, but I do have a scrim! And not just any scrim, but one with a black side that my able assistant Lisa tucked into the Mini Cooper at the last minute saying, "You never know when you might be needing this."

Need it? I was desperate for it. A quick trip out to the car, and, with the round scrim resting on my back like a black halo, I was able to—with no reflections— shoot the imagethat you see a the top of this page.

After loading all my gear back in the Mini, I walk across the street to the Rectory, a white clapboard building with blue shutters. Tall oak trees surround the Rectory, and the walk—and yard—is a veritable acorn feast.

 
The sanctuary of Our Lady Star of the Sea is supported by arched beams and adorned by stained glass. 
"Father Muldoon is sitting at his desk, a tall man with a deep voice and an Irish accent, round rim glasses, and white hair.

"The Nativity, the Christmas scene," Father Muldoon says, "is the Incarnation—if you'd like to use a theological term—where God unites Himself with humanity in the Birth of Jesus. The Divinity and the humanity come together in that one scene.

"And of course, everybody loves the birth of a child. It gives us the feeling of family. When we have our nativity scene here (we have one in the church and one outside), children especially are attracted to it, and it's one way to tell people especially about Jesus and His coming among us."

I am surprised, Father, that the stained glass Nativity is so small…

"The stained glass have to be small," Father Muldoon says, "because of the nature of the windows, which open. So you couldn't have a very large scene. The only large scene is in the window over the choir loft, and also, in the new window over the side entrance, Christ Fisher of Men which was installed about six years ago now. Our windows were created by the Hiemer and Company Stained Glass Studio, Clifton, New Jersey. Stained glass has been a family tradition in this area for over 120 years. Originally, they were a German company."

"I'm happy to be able to share our works of art with the larger community, and I hope that, looking at these sacred windows will lead people to prayer and to deepen their relationship with the Lord."

More, about my trip East that took me through glorious churches in Waterbury, Hartford, Albany, Rochester, Utica, Syracuse, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo; and my five wondeful days with Dagmar Kubastová Vrkljan—Kubasta's daugther—and her husband Nick in Sarnia, Ontario, soon.

Now I must pause and bake some Greek koulourákia cookies that my Godson Benjamin and his children love—and will be munching on waiting for the turkey to come out of the oven.

Happy Thanksgiving!

—Alexis

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