‘And They’ll Feast, Feast, Feast, Feast’

Deacons Andrew Jones of Mobile, Alabama, and Patrick Friend of Little Rock, Arkansas, portrayed the Grinch and his dog, Max, during the annual St. Nicholas Banquet event Dec. 7 at St. Meinrad Archabbey. The event, attended by St. Meinrad seminarians, staff, faculty and their families, started with liturgy, included a reception and banquet and eventually concluded with the skit set to the theme of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Jacob Wiegand

The children in attendance loved Christmas a lot, and at St. Meinrad’s St. Nicholas Banquet, they learned Christmas can’t be bought.

Complete with an evening liturgy, a reception stocked with hors d’oeuvres and a cocktail bar, a full meal and a 40-minute live rendition of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the annual night of celebration at the castle-sized St. Meinrad Archabbey in Spencer County offered members of the seminary community and their families a way to unwind and indulge in holiday cheer.

As is tradition, seminarians (most of whom are also deacons) in their final year at the St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology were in charge of organizing and executing the three-hour event.

Seminarians portrayed residents of Whoville during a practice for the skit Dec. 5.
Deacon Clark Lenz of Torrington, Wyoming, prepared to take the stage as a newscaster during a practice for the skit Dec. 5.

The men ordered the banquet meal from the school kitchen staff and served it to about 200 people on the night of the banquet. Some decorated the various locations used for activities, mixed cocktails and tapped kegs during the reception while others belted out songs like “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” in a six-piece jazz band. They wrote the script for their monastic take on the timeless Dr. Seuss classic, designed their own costumes, applied their own makeup, and on, and on.

It was a long process that visibly weighed on the 22 men in the class even before the performance’s big premiere on Dec. 7. Prior to the final rehearsal run of the performance, class representative Patrick Friend acknowledged he was exhausted from all the planing, setup and rehearsing. But he still smiled, strapped his antlers to his head — he portrayed the Grinch’s dog, Max, in the performance — and hopped onto the campus’ theater stage with a bounce in his step.

“This is our one way to say thank you to the school,” said Friend, 29, whose home diocese is located in Little Rock, Arkansas.

The school started hosting the banquet in the 1970s as a way to observe the closing of the first semester of classes. The seminarians — who come to the Archabbey from across the world to study to become priests — typically return home to their dioceses later in the month to celebrate Christmas, so the St. Nick’s event serves as the school’s holiday party. By organizing and handling the festivities, the deacons wrap the night and give it as a gift to the staff and faculty in the community.

Father Denis Robinson of Oxford, Mississippi, left, and Deacon David Farrell of Brandenburg, Kentucky, had their picture taken in a homemade cutout of Cindy Lou Who and the Grinch during the banquet. Deacon Patrick Friend of Little Rock, Arkansas, said the St. Nicholas Banquet, which is hosted by seminarians in their final year, is a chance to say “thank you” to the community at the Saint Meinrad Archabbey and seminary.

Father Denis Robinson said that while the night does morph with the creative minds who organize it, the school always makes a point to include all the seminarians, school faculty and staff, as well as all family and children with ties to the seminary.

A live performance has also accompanied the banquet since the night’s inception more than four decades ago. The tones of the past performances have varied; past play themes include works such as “Peanuts,” “Harry Potter,” “Hunger Games,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“It’s really a show for the kids in many ways,” Robinson said of the performance.

This year’s group started planning the night in September but wouldn’t tell The Herald the theme, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” until its first reading in early December. Friend compared the knowledge of the theme to a nuclear code, adding that keeping the details secret until opening night is also tradition.

The budget for this year’s banquet was $4,000. It has increased a little over the past two years as the school has expanded the guest list.

Seminarian Tim Florian of Mobile, Alabama, and Deacon Joseph de Orbegozo of Little Rock, Arkansas, sang for guests during the banquet’s reception.
Christopher Lutz, a professor of philosophy at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, left, and his daughter, Amelia, 13, both of St. Meinrad, watched the skit.

While the group had limited theater experience, they divided and conquered their tasks handily: seminarian Jay Cartwright — who is good with computers and electronics — handled the stage lighting and music, a group of seminarians created a massive cave prop out of kraft paper and wood frames that rested stage right, and Brother Cassian Elkins, 36, facilitated the cohesion of the performance as its artistic director. Elkins brought a professional eye to rehearsals: He has four years of acting experience from his time in New York City when he played roles in musicals like “Rent,” “The Producers” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” All members of the class of 2018 participated in the play and the events that preceded it in some way.

“I like to give everyone their chance to shine,” Elkins said moments before the performance began.

Other stage props included fireplaces carved out of plywood, a small forest of artificial Christmas trees, a push cart transformed into a sleigh and a fog machine. And while the seminarian writers did pull much from the script of the original tale, the work was dotted with inside jokes that only the seminarian community would understand. Coupled with Friend’s child-favorite Max character and seminarian Andrew Jones’ rendition of the Grinch, viewers said this year’s show was a memorable one.

“It’s always fun,” said John Schlachter, who attended with his children and is the school’s director of admissions. “They slide in a couple inside jokes for the seminarians, but they keep it light and fun for kids, too. I think they keep it fun enough for the kids and entertaining enough for the adults.”

The takeaway message from the performance came near the conclusion, when Saint Nick (Deacon Richard Toboso, 29) explained to the Grinch that the Whos weren’t sad that the green-colored antagonist stole all their presents because Christmas is about the one gift he couldn’t take away — the gift of baby Jesus.

Brother Zachary Wilberding, a native of Dubuque, Iowa, tossed candy canes to the audience at the beginning of the skit, in which he portrayed an elf narrator.

And with the final curtain draw, another chapter of the St. Nick’s Banquet came to an end. But, it won’t be long before a new script is penned.

“I think the expectation is very high every year for the play, and I think they pulled it off this year,” said seminarian Luke Hassler. Next year, his class will be in charge of organizing the banquet’s festivities.

For those finishing their time at St. Meinrad next spring, however, the conclusion of the banquet marks another step away from a place they have called home for four years or more.

“I made some good friendships,” said Cartwright, 33. He came to the school from Nassau, Bahamas.

“It’s going to change, of course, because it’s the difference between living down the hall from someone and living in a different country.”

He smiled.

“But at the same time, priests are single guys. You need someone to vacation with.”

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