Parish directory showed more than faces


For the past few months, I’ve been helping to coordinate the production of a parish photo directory for my church, St. Brendan the Navigator in Shallotte, N.C. Our church’s last photo directory was published in 1984, and it included approximately 60 families. For the new directory, to be published at the first of the year, the portrait studio has already photographed close to 500 households, and we have more portraits scheduled in the days ahead.

The process of photographing our parishioners has gone fairly smoothly, considering the obstacles we faced, in the form of two hurricanes, Dennis and Floyd. While the studio employees were able to find detours around the flooded roads and somehow managed to make it to church to set up their equipment, many parishioners had trouble keeping their appointments. Some, either evacuated, trapped by flooding, or busy volunteering for the Red Cross, missed their original appointments and had to reschedule. Others have had serious personal difficulties, unrelated to the hurricanes — illness, a death in the family — that prompted them to cancel or reschedule their appointments.

In light of the hurricanes and the personal problems many of my fellow parishioners have faced, I sometimes ask myself why I’m spending so much time and energy on a photo directory project. When compared to other, more worthy causes, this project, seems rather trivial.

Yet, the more involved I have become in every stage of the project, the more committed I am to its value. As our pastor, Father Michael, said at the outset, this directory will provide a history of the parish, as well as a means by which we can connect faces with names. The photo directory will provide that important link to help us overcome the initial awkwardness associated with encountering people regularly without being formally introduced.

But what’s even more important, and what I found truly touching in my work with the directory, is the actual experience of witnessing the portraits as they are taken of the members of our parish, from the infant to the 92-year-old great grandmother, from the young man confined to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy to the young man dressed in his ROTC uniform. All are valued members of the parish family who have taken the time to be photographed, to be included in one book, a record of our parish life.

Because our parish largely consists of retirees, the majority of those photographed come for their portraits not as families, but as couples and singles. Several widows lamented how they wished there had been a photo directory in progress before their husbands died, so they might have a recent portrait as a keepsake. I’ve discovered in putting the directory together that most elderly people do not have portraits done, except for special occasions, such as a 50th anniversary, and this project allowed them the opportunity to give portraits to their children and grandchildren.

But the most touching aspect of photographing parishioners for our directory was apparent in the portraits the church commissioned of our shut-ins and nursing home residents. Determined to include our entire parish family, Father Michael hired a professional photographer to go to these parishioners, and, with their permission, take their portraits. I accompanied the photographer, and I was deeply moved by witnessing this experience. The nursing home residents, some in wheelchairs, some using walkers, were brought individually to the activity room, where the photographer had set up her equipment. Some of the residents had a full understanding of what was going on; others knew they were having their portraits taken, but didn’t seem to grasp why. But they were all dignified and, yes, beautiful, as they posed for their portraits.

Yesterday, I picked up the proofs of these residents’ portraits. One after the other, their faces were truly remarkable. A gentleman who’d just undergone brain surgery and was in great pain at the time somehow managed to smile, and the smile captured in his photo was brilliant. One lady, who’d been wearing a colorful, silly cap that shadowed her eyes, removed her cap and presented a face so intelligent and distinguished she might be mistaken for royalty.

In a society that celebrates youth and fashion-model beauty, the photographs of these parishioners confined to nursing homes offer far more than a record of who’s who in our parish. They capture the dignity, the beauty, the spirit of those who, too often, are isolated and ignored.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and four children, ages 8 to 16.