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Fairfax women bring light to parishioners with repurposed altar candles

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There was something so comforting about the flicker of the flame, the pale melted wax, the delicate scent emanating from the candle that reminded her of the Mass. But more than what it was, it was the reality of what it had been that brought a a glow to Sue Spitz’s face. The 8-ounce mixture of paraffin and beeswax pooling in a Mason jar had once been remnants of altar candles lit during Mass at St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax. 

The scene inspired Spitz, a parish sacristan, to spread that flicker of joy to her faith community. With the help of friends, the little light of candles like hers soon shone in the homes of hundreds of St. Leo parishioners.

The candle, and the concept of a domestic church, took on a whole new significance after public Masses were suspended. Spitz read that praying beforehand, dressing up and setting out a crucifix made the experience of watching Mass online feel more real. Lighting the reborn candle, too, provided great solace. 

“This first week when our family lit it, it made me feel so good, like I really was connected with St. Leo, that I was actually in the church because I had part of the church in my home,” she said. “The second week I thought, what a privilege (it was) that I have this candle. I was feeling this tug in my heart that this was something that really needed to be shared.” 

But the ministry of light truly began years before in 2017 with a simple premise: it was too wasteful to keep throwing away the waxy stubs of used tabernacle and altar candles. So Spitz and fellow St. Leo sacristan Patty Wolfhope began to save them. As the stubs began to pile up in the family art room, Patty’s daughter Sarah decided to help. “We thought it was just a matter of melting the wax, pouring it in a new jar, adding a wick and you’re good to go, but not quite,” said Patty. 

Early prototypes of the candles had disappearing wicks, sinkholes and residual wax caked to the sides of the jar even once the wick had burned down completely. Months of testing and research honed their technique. “It took us awhile to get to the place where we were like, OK, I could proudly give this to someone,” said Sarah. The Luminescence Candle Co. Etsy shop was born.

On candle-making days, the Wolfhope kitchen is covered with plastic tablecloths and large cutting boards on which they place the hot vats of wax. Sarah cuts off the burnt wicks before throwing the stubs into a tall metal pot and melting them in the oven for hours. Once they’re melted, she dons an apron and fishes out the wicks and any other debris before pouring the liquid wax into a pitcher, and then into warmed glass jars. The whole house begins to smell like church, said Sarah. 

The candles cure for hours, then Sarah drills holes in them, tiny chimneys for the air to escape through before a second pour. She creates the smooth, flat top surface with a heat gun, then trims the cotton-braided wick. Finishing touches include sticking a label atop the lid and tying a twine bow around the jar.

Sue Spitz (left) and Sarah and Patty Wolfhope hold candles from their ministry, Light from Light, which helps them share a physical piece of their parish with fellow parishioners of St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax during the pandemic.COURTESY

lr candle ladiesCreating candles was a welcome distraction for Sarah through years of medical tests, hospitalizations and long nights scouring the internet for an explanation to her illness. In 2019, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. “It’s where your connective tissue isn’t formed properly and it can cause you to have a lot of other problems, too,” said Sarah. Her chronic conditions, among other things, keep her from standing up for long periods and keeping food down. 

The 28-year-old was scheduled to have surgery in May that would alleviate some of her nausea and vomiting when she got a call from the hospital saying a spot had opened in March. “We couldn’t believe it, we were just so overjoyed,” her mom said. They traveled to Connecticut to see one of only two doctors in the world who perform surgery for median arcuate ligament syndrome. Sarah had the operation only days before non-essential surgeries were postponed. “That was God working through all of this,” said Patty. 

They returned to Virginia around Holy Week, and Spitz suggested giving away some of the Luminescence candles. “We thought, that sounds so fulfilling and being able to bring joy to people would be so wonderful,” said Sarah. To test the waters, Spitz emailed the St. Leo’s mothers group, and within 24 hours all 15 of the candles they offered were claimed. 

Then they emailed all the ministries in the parish, and put a notice in the bulletin. They asked those who received the candles to consider donating to the parish. Spitz left a labeled candle next to a bottle of hand sanitizer on her front porch for anyone who requested one. Patty, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, left candles at the front doors of the homebound. Father David A. Whitestone, pastor, gave his blessing to the ministry and the candles. Inspired by the line from the Nicene Creed, they named the ministry Light from Light.

But the ministry faces a bit of an existential crisis  — they’ve run out of wax. While they hope to partner with other diocesan churches to get more, they don’t know exactly what the future holds for Light from Light or the Luminescence Candle Co. Right now, they’re gratified that weeks of color-coding spreadsheets and sweeping up flecks of wax has brought literal light into people’s lives during these dark times.  

“We should almost put that on the candle, 40 hours of comfort,” said Patty. “When we first hatched this plan, we all looked at each other and all said, this is a win win. Who wouldn't want a candle directly from St. Leo that was at the holy sacrifice of the Mass and was blessed? It’s just beautiful.” 

Parishioner Alex Navarro couldn’t believe the timing of receiving a candle. Navarro had been praying a nightly rosary on Zoom for weeks for a high school classmate who was losing a battle with COVID-19. Then one day, within a matter of minutes, he learned that his classmate died; that the class would all hold a lit candle on the Zoom rosary that night; and that a complete stranger from his parish was offering him a candle. “I like to call it a God wink,” he said. 

Parishioner Lauren Mueller had something special in mind for her little piece of St. Leo — using it as a first birthday candle. Last May, Mueller was 35 weeks pregnant when she noticed her unborn baby had stopped moving. The family held little Annie’s funeral at St. Leo. This year, Mueller wasn’t able to attend Mass or receive the Eucharist on the anniversary of Annie’s birth, and death. It brings her to tears just thinking about it. 

But she was able to make Annie a birthday cake, white with strawberry frosting. She was able to watch her son and daughter sing Happy Birthday and blow out their little sister’s candle. 

Through grateful emails and calls, Spitz and the Wolfhopes have witnessed how much light a candle could bring to people facing grief, sickness and loneliness. “It’s been nice to put so much love into something someone is going to cherish,” said Sarah. “This was a way we could remind the community that there is a community still here, whether we’re seeing each other in church or not.”

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To learn more, go here or email lightfromlight2020@gmail.com. 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020

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