By Debbie Shelley
The Catholic Commentator
Shortly after Labor Day, when the only signs of Christmas are at retail outlets and drug stores, Father Frank Uter takes a seat at his kitchen table in his rectory and pens personal tidings in Christmas cards to each of the 4,100 families at Immaculate Conception Church in Denham Springs and its mission church, Sacred Heart in Livingston.
He has carried out this tradition for decades, across the Diocese of Baton Rouge at the various church parishes where he has served. During that time he has likely used many gallons of ink.
Father Uter’s inspiration for sending out the personalized Christmas cards came from Pope Paul VI’s 1975 encyclical, “Evangelii Nuntiandi” or “Evangelization in the Modern World.”
“Evangelization has always been part of the church’s ministry since the ascension of our Lord,” said Father Uter. “But our focus primarily was within the parish and her ministries and religious education. But Pope Paul VI reminded us how important it is to evangelize, to reach out beyond the pews.”
Father Uter attended workshops on the encyclical, and in 1976 he was assigned as pastor to St. Mary of False River Church in New Roads.
“That was my first pastorship,” he said.
The St. Mary staff had Christmas cards printed up and were going to print labels and send them out.
“I got a few parishioners together that were active in the parish and a few “I got a few parishioners together that were active in the parish and a few friends and I said, ‘Would you mind one Sunday if we took the parish roll and instead of putting labels on all these Christmas cards if we wrote out the envelopes in our own hand? It seems to me if parishioners are getting cards from the parish it needs to be with a personally written envelope and not like some mass production,’ ” said Father Uter. “And they said ‘Sure.’
“We did that for two years and it was fun. We’d do all of that and have supper and they’d go in the mail.”
But Father Uter felt he needed to do more.
“I said, ‘I don’t get to talk to every parishioner all the time. If I wrote a little personal greeting it would be a way of reaching out to everyone in the parish,” he said.
He continued the tradition when he was assigned to St. Joseph Cathedral in 1984.
In 1997, Father Uter was assigned to the cluster parishes of St. Michael the Archangel in Convent, St. Joseph Church in Paulina and Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Gramercy. It was during the years when the parishes were first clustered.
“It was, ‘You prefer this parish to us,’ or, ‘You like them better than us,’ ” said Father Uter. “It was human nature and it was understandable. It was almost like a sibling rivalry, but we got over that.”
He said he sent Christmas cards to families in the parishes so that they would know he cared for them.
“It was my way of reaching out to every family in all three parishes equally. And so they knew it was a way of growing together,” said Father Uter.
Then Father Uter came to Immaculate Conception and faced the challenges of making contact with so many families.
“I knew I was not seeing every family on Sunday, much less talking to every family personally. That’s where the spirit of evangelization really kicked in,” he said.
Father Uter has rules regarding his Christmas card project. Beginning in September he does not take a day off and in the evenings and on Sunday afternoons if he doesn’t have meetings he will go to the (rectory) kitchen table and write cards so it doesn’t become like an office project.
“Each year the secretaries give me a book with every family with the names and ages and nicknames, everything that can help me to make the card personal and ages of the children,” said Father Uter.
If he sees a zero by a child’s name he writes a note to the parents that he hopes their first Christmas with their child is especially graced. He also keeps cards in alphabetical order, so that in case someone dies or becomes sick he can rewrite the card to their families.
And there’s also personal thanks for people’s ministry.
“I have one man who likes to cook shrimp boats (dishes), so I tell him in the course of the message, ‘Thanks for the shrimp boat,’ ” said Father Uter.
The flood of 2016 was a challenging year with so many people displaced. The church had received the cards shortly before the flood and they were destroyed. Father Uter took a picture of them in a wheel barrel as they were being carted away. Determined to have some sense of normalcy, the cards were soon reprinted and Father Uter kept up the tradition.
“I wrote a whole lot of cards saying, ‘We hope you will soon be home for Christmas.’ ”
Once Father Uter finishes writing the cards, a couple of people will take a few boxes of cards home and seal the cards, which also contain a copy of the Christmas Mass schedule, and bring them back to the church. Parishioner Beverly Jackson will get long trays from the post office and she and volunteers separate the cards by zip codes before taking them to the post office.
The original artwork and a framed copy of the Christmas cards adorn the walls of the ICC office. The 2013-2015 Christmas cards served as a gallery of artwork from ICC teens; 2016 incorporated the works of mercy and 2017 featured a stunning gold star of Bethlehem encircled with handprints of autistic children. This year’s card features a photo of pint-sized angels and shepherds, from Immaculate Conception Early Learning Center’s 2017 Christmas pageant.
Father Uter said the cards are put in the mail on Dec. 17, the beginning of the O Antiphons, the final preparation days for Christmas.
While it occasionally requires discipline to write the cards, Father Uter said doing so helps him realize how blessed he is.
“To be surrounded by so many good families and just writing for a few hours I feel really good,” said Father Uter.