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Fredericksburg woman safeguards her family’s heirloom Christening dress

So just how would one approach the washing and ironing of a delicate Christening outfit that is nearly 100 years old? 

christening dress lr vertical for webMary Dooley Kenney of Fredericksburg has a two-word answer: “Very carefully!”

Mary Dooley Kenney displays the nearly century old Christening gown, a family heirloom, that has graced more than 50 babies at their baptisms in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. COURTESY PHOTO

The mother of six and a retired teacher from Montfort Academy, Kenney is an active parishioner at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church. At a spry 88 years old, she is the keeper of the family heirloom that has been worn by more than 50 babies at their baptism in New York, New Jersey and Maryland. The christening outfit also has adorned babies in several parishes in the Arlington Diocese including St. Michael in Annandale, St. Bernadette in Springfield, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Lake Ridge, Our Lady of the Blue Ridge in Madison and St. Mary in Fredericksburg.

The first infant to wear the matching dress, slip and hat was Kenney’s oldest sibling, William Joseph Dooley, who will be 96 years old in June. It was handmade for him in 1921 by a family friend and was passed down to the three younger children. The family worshipped at St. Therese of Lisieux in Brooklyn, affectionately known by the locals as the Little Flower Church. All four of the Dooley children live independently.

As the caretaker of the family heirloom, Kenney mails the freshly laundered and ironed garment to any family member who requests it. She asks the recipient to not wash it but simply mail it back to her in Fredericksburg. It is getting fragile and Kenney worries that it will disintegrate. 

While ironing the pieces, she says a little prayer to her mother who tackled the job more than a few times, most probably for nieces and nephews who later joined the extended family in addition to her own four children. 

Kenney thanks God that the heirloom has never gone astray although the little matching hat was misplaced many, many years ago.

The Fredericksburg resident has kept a careful list of all the babies who were christened in the dress and their birthdays. The latest addition, a great grandchild in upstate New York, is number 52. The package is already in the mail.

The practice of handing down or sharing special outfits associated with the sacraments used to be common among Catholic families. In addition to christening outfits, First Communion dresses or suits and bridal gowns were often treasured heirlooms. 

This octogenarian is doing her part to keep that tradition alive.

Mahoney is a freelance writer from Fredericksburg.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017