Featured Story

Never to be forgotten: Island faith leaders on their most memorable Christmases

Memorable Christmases often involve trips, of going home or picking up loved ones, or interior journeys, where certain truths and values are realized.

For Father Charles McCarron, pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, and Father Peter DeSanctis, pastor of Our Lady of the Isle, Christmas memories that stand out involved both physical and interior journeys. For Reverend Stephen Adkison, pastor of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, a journey to the Island made his most memorable Christmas.

FINDING THE LIGHT

“I was 19,” Father McCarron remembered. It was the 1970s and he had just joined the Catholic Capuchin Franciscan order of priests and monks, which is dedicated to acts of charity, prayer and contemplation. The monastery — actually an old 18th Century mansion — was in Milltown, Mass. just outside Boston. “It was a very severe and stark Advent — the Christian season leading up to Christmas — at the house. No Christmas decorations, no holiday movies or music,” Father McCarron said.

Once a week members of the order would be driven by church volunteers into Boston to an island in the harbor — called Long Island — to a city hospital to visit the patients. “There were a lot of elderly people,” he said, “They had what we would call now, but would never call then, dementia. They’d been abandoned by their families. No one came to visit them, except us.”

It was at times difficult duty, Father McCarron recalled, but made worthwhile by the reactions of the patients.

On the way back to the house, the volunteer drivers would take the young men through Boston neighborhoods, with streets and houses decorated for Christmas, alight in the December darkness. “We’d stare out the window, at all the lights, and look into windows with Christmas trees and people in bright rooms,” he said, adding with a laugh, “and we felt just like orphans.”

But then on Christmas Eve morning, the darkness and severity of that Advent was brightened. The men went into the woods for “branches and boughs and we brought them back and decorated the house,” Father McCarron said. “I’ve never forgotten the feeling of joy I had that Christmas, thinking of the happiness we brought the patients in the hospital, the generosity of the drivers, going through the streets to see all the decorations, and the magic of the season of light for all of us.”

WALKING TO BETHLEHEM

For Father Peter DeSanctis, one of the most memorable Christmases was more than 40 years ago, when making a visit to a parishioner on Christmas Eve, he found himself re-living the story of the Nativity story told in the Christian gospels.

“Mrs. Margaret Daileader, an elderly lady who went to Mass every day to receive Holy Communion, called me leading up to Christmas and said she’d be unable to come to church,” Father DeSanctis recalled. “I told her not to worry, I’d bring the Blessed Sacrament to her house in Westmoreland on Christmas Eve.”

He hadn’t counted on a blizzard striking the Island. Unable to drive, he told himself that a promise is a promise, and he would walk the long trek from the Heights to Westmoreland. He set out and didn’t turn back, he said, even when, as he began the trip, “it was dark, and the snow was blowing sideways.”

It stopped snowing and he trudged on. It then came to him that Joseph and his nine-months pregnant wife Mary made the long, difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem on foot, and never wavered.

“I also thought of the shepherds in the field with their flocks on cold nights, waiting for a sign. And the Magi, the three wise men, who came from what we now know as Iraq and Iran, who took a long time traveling, but never stopped, and finally were received by the family.”

At the Westmoreland house, Mrs. Daileader was “radiant with happiness.”

Going home was easier, buoyed by his parishioner’s graciousness at receiving the sacrament he’d brought. But also, the day had cleared a bit and “there was some sunshine,” Father DeSanctis said. “I think of that day every Christmas.”

AN ISLAND CHRISTMAS

Reverend Stephen Adkison’s most memorable holiday season was 2021, when he became pastor of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church. “It was my very first Christmas here,” Rev. Adkison said. “All of Amy’s and my children, Hannah, April, and Taylor, and a future son-in-law, Matthew, were here visiting for a few days, some for the first time.”

The family got immediately acquainted with the Island, going to dinner at the Ram’s Head Inn and taking a walk in Mashomack. What made it more beautiful, and memorable, was a lovely snowfall.

“On Christmas Eve, we celebrated the birth of Christ in a moving worship service with my faithful congregation,” Rev. Adkison remembered. “As a family, together we lit the Advent Wreath and Christmas Candle, and my daughter, Hannah, and I performed ‘Mary, Did You Know?’ with her on vocals and I on classical guitar.”

Afterwards, they had another unique Island experience, pizza at Slice. “On Christmas Day, we exchanged gifts, enjoyed a family dinner together, and gave thanks to God for the gifts of our family and friends.”

They were home, together, on Shelter Island.