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'It feels like home': Military families celebrate Christmas at Fort Meade mass

By BROOKS DUBOSE | The Capital | Published: December 25, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Donald St. Germain sat by himself at the back of the chapel on Christmas morning, holding a hymn book, reciting prayers softly and reading along with the songs.

St. Germain, an 86-year-old military veteran, has been coming to Post Chapel on Fort George G. Meade military base to attend Christmas Day mass for 30 years.

Wednesday morning was no different, St. Germain and about 30 other parishioners gathered at Post Chapel to celebrate the holidays together.

"It's tradition," he said, pointing to other congregants in front of him whom he's seen in previous years or met for the first time Wednesday. "There's a lot of camaraderie between retired military. A lot of them come here and that's part of it."

The group sang well-known Christmas songs like "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Joy To The World" and even sang happy birthday to one parishioner.

Melissa Weeks, and her 14-year-old daughter Marian, led the group through the tunes. The hope was that all congregants would know the songs and feel like they were part of the Christmas celebration, Weeks said.

"My mission — this is my military family — whether you're retired or active duty, you're all my military family," she said. "Because we're all displaced and this is our family whether we're with our family from birth or our family from here."

Father Arkadiusz Ochalek, who led the mass, emphasized those themes of family and fellowship in his sermon.

"My friends in Rome, in Krakow, in Bethlehem ... Today, we are not alone," said Ochalek, who was raised in Soviet-controlled Poland and came to the United States in 2010. "We are united in spirit by the people who came before us. ... This is the most human of our celebrations ... with Christmas trees in the corner, toys for our children, turkey or ham in the oven and presents for our friends. ... This day more than any other is our family celebration."

Military members and their family members move regularly throughout their careers. A chapel is one of the first places that they can connect with their new community, Ochalek said.

"There's stability. People like to be with people," he said.

A few pews away from St. Germain, retired Army veteran Lynn Sanchez sat with her husband Rudy. The pair have been coming to mass since 1996.

"It feels like home," she said. "We love this place."

This is where they started and they love coming back, her husband said. "We love the chapel."

The couple raised two sons on base, both of whom served as altar helpers at Post Chapel. Both are now active military members. One is stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the other in Kuwait.

Neither could make it home for the holidays, Sanchez said, but she was thinking about them throughout the service. They had been able to talk on the phone a few days ago and another call was planned for later in the evening.

"We'll go home and relax. I don't feel so bad that the kids aren't here," she said. "We'll be talking again to them sometime later today."

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