Cathy Solum, 2018 Seder Meal chairperson and granddaughter of one of the event’s founding organizers Martha Mullen, greets her uncle, Fr. Dennis Mullen. Fr. Mullen was one of four priests in attendance. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Traditions and celebrations often go hand in hand, and Holy Week in the Catholic Church is no exception. While most parishes focus on the Triduum liturgies, Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Rice Lake (Dobie) begins on the Wednesday of Holy Week hosting a Seder meal in remembrance of the Jewish Passover.

This tradition began in 1976 as a celebration for the parish’s centennial anniversary. Forty-two years later, the event continues to be a family affair.

The 2018 chairperson was Cathy Solum, granddaughter of one of the Seder meal’s original organizers, Martha Mullen. Solum, whose mother Janet also chaired the event for many years, remembers being about 10 years old as her grandmother and friends discussed their research with then-pastor Fr. James Kraker and planned the undertaking.

“I knew this was something important and special being brewed. I remember the seriousness … probably from them wanting to be so authentic and also the excitement in the air as the plans came together,” Solum said.

This new endeavor would build upon what was already a rich parish history. Our Lady of Lourdes was the first Catholic Church in Barron County, spiritual home to a conglomerate community of immigrants. After a fire destroyed the original log building, the existing church structure was finished and dedicated in 1904. Local “Blue Hills” stone was shaped by hand to create the exterior walls from 2,600 tons of rock, which parishioners brought to the site by sleigh.

With a similar spirit of tenacity and teamwork, Martha Mullen and Marguerite Howarth dug up information from a small number of available resources to learn about the prayers, rituals and recipes. Authenticity and fidelity to Jewish Seder traditions was pursued from the beginning.

Early on, hard-to-find food items needed for meal were purchased in Eau Claire or the Twin Cities, with one exception. Until the Matzo ball mix was able to be purchased locally, it was sent by a parishioner’s daughter all the way from California.

Just as the Mullen family has had multiple family members from various generations involved in Dobie’s Seder, many other families have passed the torch from mother to daughter, with husbands and sons also serving from year to year.

Walking into the Dobie church’s basement hall, the tables were set as if for an elegant reception. Each place had a small plate with matzo, horseradish, haroses (a mixture of chopped apple, nuts, cinnamon and wine), egg and green herbs; the symbolism of each item was explained as the ceremonial meal progressed.
A 12-page purple packet, in use for the meal since 1983, included the commentaries as well as the leader’s readings and participants’ responses.

After some introductions, Mike Drost and Marion Stodola led the “Song of Good News;” Christian lyrics set to a mournfully cadent Jewish folk tune. The lights were turned off and the Seder began with an assigned mother lighting the festival lights at the head table. One by one, a woman from each table came forward to light a candle from the primary candelabra to bring back to her place.

With the commentator’s narration, Fr. Samuel Schneider led those gathered in the blessing of each food before it was eaten. Wine, or grape juice, had a prominent role in the meal. Being poured, blessed and drank at four separate moments, it was explained that the four cups signify the four promises of deliverance in the Old Testament.

The story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt was retold, beginning with four questions read by one of the youngest people present. Since 1988, these questions have been read by a first communicant chosen from the cluster.

The Solums’ eldest daughter, Kayla, was one of these selected First Communicants. Solum remembers, “It was a big deal; she practiced and practiced until she had it perfect.” And so began the next generation of Mullens involved with carrying on the Seder meal tradition.

“All of them, now grown, have always enjoyed the history and the tradition that comes with the Seder,” Solum said. Each of her four children “have tagged along helping” with the meals since they were in the second grade.
She noted that her grandchildren, 1 and 3 years old, have started attending and said, “It makes me feel like this tradition will be carried on forever.”

In litany form, the Seder participants reenacted another part of the Jewish Passover, the Dayenu song. The Hebrew “Dayenu” – meaning “it would have been enough” – is repeated after each stanza recounting the wonders and favors of God towards the Israelites.

Another melodic moment happened after the second cup of wine, when the leader and those present recited the praise-filled Psalm 113 in chorus. After this, the remaining plated foods were explained and eaten; then a family style supper, including lamb, was served.

Throughout the Seder meal, each of the five senses was engaged. From the candle lighting in the darkness to the texture of the matzo distinctly reminiscent of the hosts consecrated to become Jesus’ body in the Mass; from the prayerful acclamations and responses to the wide array of aromas and flavors, both mild and pungent.

The solemnity of these sensual traditions flowed naturally into the meal, which continued as any other family celebration with conversation and fellowship. There was a server present at each table to make sure no one lacked for anything. Since the early 1980s, most of the servers have been cluster confirmation students.

To end the meal, there were prayers of thanksgiving, a hymn of praise and final benediction which included drinking the fourth cup of wine or grape juice. As the final strains of “Lead Me, Lord” were played, Fr. Dennis Mullen – retired priest for the diocese of Superior and Martha Mullen’s son – raised his fist in the air and proclaimed the traditional utterance to end a Seder meal, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

Marybell Lenz was the event chairperson for more than 10 years before Cathy Solum. A parishioner for 40 years, Lenz always looked forward to participating in the Seder meal, even attending one year on her birthday. She shared that her motivation for taking the lead role was to “make sure it continued; to keep it going.”
“It was very important to those first people … as more people got involved, it became an important part of our Holy Week,” she said.

The biggest changes to Dobie’s Seder have come from the clustering of parishes; first with the Catholic Church in Haugen, then Birchwood and most recently with St. Joseph’s in Rice Lake.

Attempting to be fair and equal but with logistical practicality, Lenz believes “we merged well,” and have learned things from each other. The individual parishes have specific cooking roles and there is a rotation for guests of honor at the head table to represent one parish each year.

The meal is enjoyed every year by various parish members who have made it a Holy Week tradition, as well as many newcomers. In his initial welcome, Fr. Schneider asked who was attending for the first time; of the 140 present, approximately 20 percent raised their hands.

“It’s very enriching,” Lenz said, concluding that the important part is that “we still need to tell the story each year … and that’s what this is a part of.”

For Solum, the event can be summarized as a special meal prepared in an atmosphere for others to enjoy, “while growing together in our faith.

“That is why I hope to be involved with it each year. It’s tradition.”