By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

The bags the 400 children received at their places said it all. “Happy Birthday Jesus.”

As Christmas celebrations go, the 54th annual Cardinal’s Christmas Party for Children, held on Dec. 14 at the Sheraton Philadelphia Center City Hotel had everything you could want – marching bands, clowns, jugglers, pageantry and of course Santa Claus. But first and foremost there was that clear reminder of what the celebration is really all about.

“You all know what we are celebrating today. We are celebrating the birthday of Jesus because on Christmas Day Jesus was born in Bethlehem,” Cardinal Justin Rigali told the children. “Dear boys and girls, God bless you and I hope you have a good time today.”

Central to the entertainment was the Christmas story play presented by students of Bishop Shanahan High School, Downingtown.

It was a special treat for Bishop Robert P. Maginnis because the Blessed Virgin was played by his niece, Kelly Connelly, a Shanahan senior. “She’s a fine representative of her school and was thrilled to be chosen for this,” he said.

In addition to the choirs, Shanahan’s John Battagliese presented a solo “Mary, Did You Know?”

“I was here last year too,” he said. “It’s really a joy watching the kids’ reactions.”

The play itself was put together by La Salle University professor Dave Brennan.

“It basically tells the Christmas story and has some real neat touches,” he said.

The children who attend the annual party are drawn from the various institutions and children’s programs overseen by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services.

Joseph J. Sweeney, archdiocesan Secretary for Human Services, thought this year’s program was the best ever, but conceded, “I thought last year’s was the best ever. We keep bettering ourselves.”

Many of his staff were in attendance, a good thing, according to Sweeney, because “it brings everything together for us. Every program we run for children comes together here.”

His predecessor in Catholic Human Services, Bishop Timothy C. Senior, thought the party was a wonderful display of the great charity of the people of the Archdiocese.

“It shows the commitment of the Church to services for children, especially poor children, who are most vulnerable because of the circumstances of their lives,” he said.

These services, Bishop Senior said, “are really what the Church must be doing and continue to do in every age regardless of religion and ethnicity.”

The annual celebration would not be possible without the enthusiastic support from groups at the various Catholic high schools, including marching bands from Archbishop Ryan and Archbishop Wood, step dancers from Conwell-Egan and Bishop McDevitt, cheerleaders from Cardinal Dougherty and drum lines from Archbishop Ryan, Archbishop Wood and Cardinal O’Hara.

“I love kids, they are so beautiful,” said Dougherty senior Alexis Barnes. “This was my first time (here) and I really enjoyed it.”

For the guests themselves a special treat was the traditional visit from Santa Claus, portrayed as for the past 15 years or so by Douglas Dunn, Pottstown. who teaches theology at St. Pius X High School.

“I love to teach about St. Nicholas,” he said.

With the assistance of his trusty elves, all drawn from the high schools, toys were distributed to the good little boys and girls, which meant all of them.

Carlos was thrilled with his (what else?) cars. Caillynn and Madeleine, who both got a doll and a medical kit, were thrilled with Santa. “He’s nice,” Caillynn said. “He’s the best,” Madeleine added.

The Cardinal’s Christmas Party for Children is also a means of putting faces on philanthropy for donors to Catholic Social Services.

“It’s very touching,” said Emily Reilly of the Connelly Foundation. “I love everything about it, especially the high school participation. They do it with such enthusiasm.”

“I’ve been coming since the beginning,” said Frank Flavia, 92, a member of St. Alice Parish, Upper Darby. “I wouldn’t miss this. It’s part of my life.”

The facility for the event was donated by the Sheraton Center City; Jacqueline Delaney was the event chairperson and Permanent Deacon John Hunter was the event coordinator.

“We are bringing Christmas back to where it belongs, and that’s the birth of Jesus,” Deacon Hunter said. “Hopefully these 400 children will be able to appreciate this and have a very great Christmas. For some this may be the only Christmas they have.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.