Most days of the week, Ellie Sassana's hands are spattered with gold ink. For eight hours on Mondays and four hours each day during the rest of the workweek, the self-taught calligrapher sits at a desk near a large plate glass window, writing names in gold lettering on cards that many believe hold the power to heal and set the soul at ease.
Sassana works with five other part-time calligraphers at the prayer enrollments office operated by the Sisters of the Cenacle at 513 W. Fullerton. She has personalized cards intended for thousands of Chicagoans, from Mayor Daley to a pair of pets named Felix and Blackie. The Kennedys, Princess Diana, and even Boris Yeltsin have also been sent cards with her special touch. "It was one of the smaller cards that went to Boris Yeltsin," she says. "Still, it was interesting to think that the card was going to the Kremlin."
The cards are acknowledgments of prayer requests, says Sister Rosemary Duncan, director of development for the Cenacle residence and retreat center that's home to 25 sisters. "We don't pray over the individual cards, but over the names of the people enrolled."
In 1917, Mother Mary Shannon of the Cenacle sisters' Boston congregation got the idea to make the cards because so many people asked for prayers. She designed the first cards, duplicated them on a small printing press, and began asking for donations. "It was a way of supporting our ministry, our retreat, and religious education," Duncan says.
In 1920, when the sisters established a congregation here, they continued to offer prayer enrollments. Each year, approximately 30,000 cards leave the Chicago office.
On a Tuesday afternoon in late November, the constant whip and snap of a dot matrix printer signals the onslaught of requests for Christmas prayers and blessings. Starting as early as mid-October, prayer requests increase the production of cards from the usual 100 per day to as many as 300, says office manager Helen Costello.
Throughout the year, six part-time customer service representatives take orders from 9 to 5 weekdays and from 10 to 4:30 on Saturdays. They key information into a huge database kept by the sisters and print up orders for the calligraphers, first double-checking names and addresses for accuracy.
"We try to work in advance," says customer service representative Noelle O'Donnell, "because when the Christmas orders really start coming, it's all we can do to answer the phone."
The suggested donation for regular Christmas prayer enrollment cards is $4 each, but larger, more elaborate cards can go for as much as $100. All the cards carry preprinted messages, which are then personalized with hand lettering. Fancier cards are hand colored as well, and feature lace ribbons and satin cords.
A couple of three-ring binders hold card designs for 20 specific purposes, such as the blessing of a new baby, new home, or marriage, get-well wishes, or the celebration of an anniversary. The most common prayer requests, however, are for the dead and their surviving family members.
It's not just the prayers behind the cards and the artwork that make them so special--it's the personal touch, says Sassana. "This is a small office. I'll hear the calls. If it's a memorial card for somebody, I think of the person when I make the card for them. I just did one for a 27-year-old woman killed in a car accident; I painted an extra rose. For children I always include extra flowers."
Some card recipients have acknowledged the power of the Cenacle sisters' prayers. An elderly woman wrote of a rapid and miraculous recovery from hip surgery. A man told them he had overcome a difficult employment situation. A young woman thanked the sisters for helping her cherish the short time she had with her husband before his death.
"It's not so much what happens with the physical transformations," says Duncan. "It's more a matter of a healing of the spirit.
"Our advertising is word-of-mouth. Someone will see one of our cards in a funeral home, and they'll decide they want to order one too, or they may see one at a wedding or anniversary celebration. It's really something in an age of technology and E-mail to receive a gold-engraved card with your name written in it."
The prayer office will be open until noon Friday, December 22, but the Cenacle sisters encourage people to request Christmas prayer enrollments before December 15 to allow for production and mailing of cards. For more information call 773-549-0725.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyed DeGrane.