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Home for Christmas : Family Gives Friends a Sense of Belonging for the Holiday


Pierina Harrington, 88, is widowed and has no relatives nearby, but she won't be without family when she celebrates Christmas today.

She'll be having Christmas dinner with Susan and Chip Dean, their two children and about 20 of their relatives and friends, all of whom have come to see Harrington as the matriarch of her "adopted" family.

"We wouldn't think of having a holiday without her," says Susan Dean, a Santa Ana resident who struck up a friendship with Harrington at their church about seven years ago and has been bringing her home for Christmas ever since.

Every year, Harrington, a devout Catholic who planned to attend midnight and morning Christmas Masses with Dean, finds herself in the midst of a large gathering in which she and others receive the gift they most need on this special day--a sense of belonging.

Harrington treasures the family closeness that is part of Christmas at the Dean home.

"It would be very lonely without them," she says.

John Salinis, a 38-year-old Orange resident, agrees. He was first invited to spend Christmas with the Deans in 1987, the year both of his parents died after long illnesses. Salinis, who is single and has no siblings, has returned the past four Christmases and will be joining the Deans for today's holiday meal.

Both Harrington and Salinis have standing invitations to spend Christmas and Easter at the Dean home, where they bask in what Salinis describes as the "great depth of unselfish love" that their fellow church member, Susan, has given them.

Some might call it the Christmas spirit.

Sister Beatrice Pieper of the Congregation of the Holy Cross says her work at Holy Family Cathedral puts her in contact with many people who instinctively reach out to others--not just during the holiday season, but every day of the year.

"The amount of giving that goes on that never gets attention is a wonderful secret," she says. "People here are so generous if they know there is a need. There's so much charity that goes on, so much love. It's overwhelming. I'm happy to be in a position to see it."

Pieper oversees a program through which 56 Eucharistic ministers take Communion once a week to elderly and sick parishioners who are unable to go to church. This is one way that Catholic churches throughout the county remind people that they are still part of the religious community, even though they are homebound, she explains.

Among the Eucharistic ministers at Holy Family Cathedral is Dean, who connects so strongly with people in need that she sometimes never lets go.

No one knows that better than Harrington, who says Dean "has been my fairy godmother ever since I've known her."

When they met, Harrington was attending Mass every morning, then taking care of the church altar--a responsibility that helped fill the enormous gap in her life after her husband's death in 1978.

Dean, who is 44 and has been a Eucharistic minister for about six years, introduced herself to Harrington and quickly discovered that the elderly woman's two grown children and seven grandchildren were in Utah and Wyoming--too far away to provide the sense of family she needed.

So Dean took Harrington under her wing, driving her to Sunday Mass, bringing her home for holidays, calling her during the week and even taking her to doctor's appointments.

Harrington hasn't been able to drive or tend to the church altar for the past year because, although she's still full of inner vitality that keeps a spark in her eyes, two strokes have slowed her down considerably.

Dean, who took Communion to Harrington when she was recovering from the strokes, made sure her friend did not become isolated.

And that's what she does for all the parishioners to whom she takes Communion as a lay minister.

Pieper says Eucharistic ministers, who visit residents of nursing homes as well as homebound parishioners, are church members who come forward because they "feel a calling to minister to the sick."

They tend to have the qualities Pieper sees in Dean: a "very perceptive person" who comforts others with a "gentleness and deep spirituality."

Salinis says Dean has a way of relating to people that makes them feel a "real sense of connection."

"She listens, and she really cares," he says. "She gives love freely. It radiates from her."

Dean sees her work as an expression of the same impulse that led her to become a nurse. "Many people want to give, but it's difficult for them to be near illness or death. I'm not uncomfortable with sick or dying people," she explains.

On the contrary, even though helping people prepare for death is part of her ministry, she finds her contact with homebound parishioners a "profound experience from beginning to end."

She says she's developed friendships with a number of those to whom she has taken Communion over an extended period. While some visits are brief, many last more than an hour and include conversation as well as prayer. "People are lonely, and once you develop a relationship with them, there's a lot to talk about," she says.

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