When Kelly Edwards had her youngest daughter baptized at St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville last month, she carefully placed her in what has become the family’s heirloom baptismal gown, continuing a family tradition that began 64 years ago.
It all started when young Nellie Steffler bought a baptism outfit for her first-born child back in 1952. Since then, it has been worn by almost every child in the family — 45 of them so far.
“This gown means so much to so many of us,” Edwards said. “My Great-Grandma Steffler probably never imagined it would be worn by three generations of babies — over 6 ½ decades so far! — when she bought it.”
Edwards wore it herself in 1982, as did her two sisters and her brother. The three sisters — Kelly, Sarah and Christy — have 15 children between them, and most of them have received the blessing of the sacrament while wrapped in family tradition as well.
“It just makes the rounds,” Edwards said. “It connects us all — one big family — and welcomes the new baby into the family every time.”
Edwards said her mother, who lives in Michigan, is the designated “Keeper of the Gown”, and brings it to all the baptisms. In fact, the outfit is still kept in its original box, which is almost as special as the dress itself, she said, because the box is inscribed with the history of wearers, with each name and baptism date carefully recorded.
To help reduce wear and tear, and the inevitable baby spit-ups, the babies are placed in the gown at the church and then taken out shortly after the ceremony. Still, it bears the scent and spattered marks of Chrism oil.
At one point, one of the sisters took the gown to a dry cleaner, but Edwards said the cleaners refused to touch it for fear of ruining an heirloom.
Jamie Zbyrowski, who attends the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston, said her family also has an antique baptismal gown, circa 1940, that all the children have worn. Other families pass down special items such as rosaries and Bibles.
In Hilton Head, St. Francis by the Sea parishioner Bernadine Darling is starting a new tradition.
When her daughter, Dr. Catherine Darling-Asbrey, had twin girls, she wanted their baptism outfits to have sentimental value and asked her mom to make the dresses from her wedding gown.
Mrs. Darling was willing, but said her daughter’s dress was too fancy to convert, and so she offered up her own wedding gown.
“I offered, but I certainly had to think about it when I had it laid out on the floor and had scissors in my hand,” she said.
There were a lot of happy memories tied to that dress, and the many years it led to with her husband and three children, all grown now. Still, she said, what was she going to do with it besides hang it in a closet covered in plastic?
“I was happy that it was going to have another use — and a beautiful, happy use at that,” she decided.
So she took her pattern and set to cutting.
When grandchild No. 3 came along, she gathered the sentimental remnants of her wedding dress and fashioned another baptismal outfit. It has more seams than the first two, but Mrs. Darling said it turned out beautifully, and now all three girls can have their own family tradition.
The twins, Anna and Ella, are almost 4 now, and Abbigail will soon be 2. Mrs. Darling said she looks forward to the day they pass their gowns along to their own children.
“I can’t think of a better use for a useless wedding gown,” she said.