Thursday, September 18, 2008

At Long Last, a Lay Laud

For all the Purple Rain that routinely waters the earth, it's worth noting that the recognition shown to the other 99% of the church adds up to, maybe, somewhere around 5% of the gongs granted.

Unfortunately, that's an optimistic estimate -- and, to put it nicely, it could use a little work. In the meantime, though, an elusive lay honor was conferred last week on these shores, and to someone who's literally given her life to the church: a recently-widowed Minnesota parish staffer who's been on the job for 52 years:
“It was really great,” [Dorothy] Gerson said of her papal award. “I understand it’s the highest award a lay person can get from the pope.” Family and friends joined her in the church’s lobby for the award ceremony....

Gerson, 86, is the longest-serving employee St. Michael’s history, surpassing the Rev. Charles Corcoran, who served as priest and pastor for 49 years — from 1891 to 1942.

In 1955, she joined the St. Michael’s CCW (Council of Catholic Women) and later served as president, newsletter editor, executive secretary and budget auditor.

She began working for St. Michaels in 1972 as an unpaid, part-time volunteer secretary, and was later added to the church’s payroll at $50 per month. She worked also for 20 years as the Parish Council’s secretary, retiring in 1988.

In 1999, she became financial secretary for all of St. Michael’s special donation projects, a position she still holds.

In addition to her work at St. Michael’s, Gerson has volunteered for civic organizations including Community Volunteer Services, Stillwater City Charter Commission, Washington County Historical Society, Lakeview Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, Stillwater Reading Club, and Stillwater Business and Professional Women, and Relay for Life. In 2005, the 1940 graduate was given the Stillwater Area High School Distinguished Alumni Award.

In her youth, Gerson worked at the Connolly Shoe Company, starting as a factory worker before rising to office manager and eventually secretary to the company president.

Gerson’s husband, Tom, died April 17. Together they volunteered extensively for Meals on Wheels and other community groups.
Pope Leo XIII instituted the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal in 1888 distinguished service to the Catholic church and to the Papacy. It appears as a Greek-shaped four-pointed cross, bearing in its center the images of the Princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, and the words “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice,” which translate to “For the Church and the Pontiff,” and the name Pope Benedict XVI. The Cross is suspended from a yellow and white ribbon and is worn on the left breast.
In a unique touch, the 8 September conferral of Gerson's cross was one of the last acts of her pastor, Fr John LeVoir, before his ordination (photos) this past Monday as bishop of New Ulm.

For the record, while the linked article describes the Pro Ecclesia as the "highest" papal honor a layperson can receive, it actually isn't. Above the the cross and the Benemerenti medal -- the two awards open to the laity, religious and permanent deacons alike -- stand the five orders of knighthood, the most widespread of which were first given to laywomen in 1994. Non-Catholics may also receive them; among the first who did was the late TV Guide founder and Nixon-era ambassador to the Court of St James Walter Annenberg, whose largesse to church schools saw him made a knight-commander of St Gregory the Great.

The newest group of US lay honorees -- 47 from the archdiocese of Miami, named for its golden jubilee -- will receive their hardware next month; other recent classes include a handful in May in Illinois' diocese of Rockford, and 18 in January for Portland in Oregon. Before those, the last known conferral took place in July 2007 when the Pro Ecclesia was awarded to the distinguished church historian and onetime ICEL supremo John Page at a DC liturgy.

PHOTO: Mark Brouwer/Lake Elmo Leader