Catholic Herald staff
When Mary Gavin Brown, of New Richmond, made a baptismal gown in 1886, she stitched an heirloom that has linked nearly 40 descendants of the Brown family spanning five generations and more than 100 years.
Irish by heritage, the Browns were farmers in Erin Prairie, part of the original Irish settlement there, and members of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Erin Prairie.
Mary’s son, George, was the first to be baptized in the ornate cotton gown, which his granddaughter, Colleen Johnson, describes as having a tunic the baby wears and a dress that is added at the christening. The eyelet pattern is a floral motif, and the bottom seam of the gown is scalloped.
This marks the 130th year since the gown’s creation.
“Since then, 37 babies have been baptized in the gown, mostly in Wisconsin, but also in North Dakota and Colorado,” Johnson said. “It has even been used in two Lutheran baptisms.
“The most recent baptism was held at Our Lady of Lourdes in Dobie, starting the fifth generation of babies to be baptized in it,” she added.
Owen Charles Miller, son of Brendon and Rachel Miller, wore the gown at his March 6 christening, which was celebrated by Fr. David Neuschwander at Our Lady of Lourdes.
“It was just so cool to be there, watching this baptism in this gown,” Johnson said.
A resident of Cumberland, Johnson wore the gown, as did her aunt, Bernice Brown, who also lives in Cumberland. Now 95 years old, Bernice says “Irish Catholic” pretty accurately describes their family culture.
“Oh, they were Irish Catholics,” she said. “Does that tell you what they were?
“Dad was a farmer, and my brother followed, and I did what I could,” Bernice said. “We had chickens and pigs and geese and cows and everything that you’d find on the farm, I guess.”
Bernice’s father, George, is buried in the cemetery at St. Patrick. The family later became members of Immaculate Conception, New Richmond, where the majority of the baptisms have taken place.
The Browns no longer farm, according to Johnson, although she still has relatives in the New Richmond area. Her cousin, Patrick Brown, of New Richmond, is a family history buff, and he maintains the baptismal record that is stored with the gown. It includes birth dates, parents, baptism dates and godparents.
Johnson knows of only one of the baptized babies who did not survive childhood. A girl, Rita, died of pneumonia when she was 10 months old.
The gown first appears in photos of the third generation of wearers; although Johnson has seen many pictures of her grandfather – and his childhood curls are perfectly preserved, now hanging on her wall – she has never found a photograph of his baptism.
Despite its significance as a symbol of their family and heritage, the gown isn’t kept under glass or stored in a keepsake box.
“It should be in something like that,” Johnson said.
Instead, the little dress is in a shoebox. It survived a 1956 house fire and remains in good condition.
Colleen and her sister didn’t know how to safely clean the aging fabric; her mother said to use bluing, an old-fashioned blue dye that offsets the yellowing of textiles and returns them to white.
“That’s how she, our mother, always did it,” Johnson added. “It’s still in really good shape.”
Many of the children baptized in the gown were direct descendants of the Browns, but Bernice said the family has also loaned it out to friends. All of those lives, past and present, are linked through the gown, just as each christening weaves another thread in the gown’s long story.