By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
CLINTON — Titus Mandeville was baptized last month at Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish in the same gown that once adorned his maternal great-grandmother and all 19 of her descendants when they were babies.
The white baptismal gown with lace detailing has been a family tradition for nearly 100 years. “It’s emotional knowing that there are so many generations who have been baptized in the same gown,” said Titus’ mother, Bridgette Mandeville.
“It’s representative of the faith my parents gave us and that we have hopefully passed down to our children (with hopes that) they will pass it down to theirs,” said Bridgette’s mother, Clare Lee Chatot. “I see it as a big connection to our faith.”
Clare Gertrude Oesterle, nee Deady, was the first baby to wear the gown, in 1924. Clare Gertrude’s mother, Gertrude Deady, purchased the gown in their hometown of Philadelphia. Descendants assume the gown came from one of the city’s popular department stores at the time —Wanamaker’s, Lit Brothers or Gimbels. Clare Gertrude’s three children, Clare Lee, Barbara and Joseph, wore the gown at their baptisms.
Clare Gertrude did not live to see the birth of her first grandchild in 1981. Passing down the gown was a way for her children to keep her memory and her faith alive, Clare Lee said. Clare Lee’s children, Bridgette and Marc, wore the gown as did their cousins. The tradition is now in the fourth generation. While the extended family is spread throughout the eastern United States, baptisms bring them together. Two more baptisms are scheduled later this month.
Each time a child is baptized, his or her name is written in a booklet that accompanies the gown. Parents also include the child’s date of birth, the location and date of the baptism and the godparents’ names.
The dress is in good condition and, aside from a few torn seams, hasn’t needed much work, Bridgette said. The biggest issue was discoloration. About five years ago, Clare Lee washed the dress with an antique fabric cleaner in preparation for her first grandchild’s baptism. “We always thought it had a yellow tint naturally, but it was actually white,” Bridgette recalled with a laugh. Although there have been a few close calls, none of the children have had diaper “blowouts” or other accidents while wearing the gown.
Bridgette recently looked through old photos of family members wearing the gown. “To me it seems almost impossible to maintain fabric for that long,” she said. Expressing a mix of disbelief and pride, she added, “It’s cool knowing that all four generations have been able to use the same gown and share and connect through that same moment” of baptism.
Faith can also be difficult to maintain through the generations, she admits. “Everyone so far that has been baptized has a strong Catholic faith. I don’t know if that has something to do with the gown or not, but seeing support from the rest of your family, knowing they are there to back you up and support your children,” is helpful.
For Clare Lee, the gown will always be a reminder of her mother’s legacy of family and faith. “It’s our way of knowing she’s with us when our kids and grandkids are getting baptized.”