BEDFORD, Ohio — Sister Helen Scasny studied the wall of glass-enclosed cases stretching from floor to ceiling inside the entrance of Light of Hearts Villa, a senior care center in Bedford.
Almost 900 angel figurines of various ages, sizes and materials crowded well-lit shelves, but Sister Helen wouldn’t choose a favorite among them.
“My favorite is sitting at my bedside in Bertha,” Sister Helen said of the guardian angel she named years ago. “I say goodnight to Bertha. I thank her for keeping me upright. I haven’t fallen!”
The senior care facility welcomes the public to check out its angel display all year-round, but Christmas angels come out of storage to take a prominent spot during Advent.
Now 85 years old, Sister Helen keeps bees and promotes her honey as “nun better,” but in the late 1940s she was a young teacher who witnessed the angel collection blossom.
“People like to give nuns gifts, but they never know what to give them,” she said. “People gave us angels. In those days, we couldn’t keep our gifts, and so we turned them in.”
At Christmas, the Vincentian Sisters of Charity, as they were known then, welcomed the faithful to the motherhouse chapel and its large Nativity scene. The sisters eventually started placing their angels around the creche, prompting even more presents of boxed figurines wrapped in tissue paper. Donors returned year after year to see “their” angel.
“People would come to the convent and it was like they were giving something to the baby Jesus at Christmas,” Sister Helen said. “It was their love that brought them to that crib. They treasured that angel.”
Realizing how important the angel collection became to the lay community, the late Mother Joseph Slavic designated a nearby room for overflow angels. Displayed on “steps” draped with fabric and placed against the walls, the exhibit soon included angel choirs, angels wearing ethnic garb, and angels playing sports.
When angels on skis joined the collection, maintenance staff devised a mountain to display them. Lights and Christmas music were added, too.
People brought their children to the display, and adults often lingered to share a cup of coffee with the sisters.
“It was such a joyful time,” Sister Helen said. “Hospitality is so important.”
So that the laity could see their collection after the holiday frenzy, the sisters exhibited it throughout January. They remembered guardian angels all year-round, however, and taught parochial school students about them. Mother Joseph reminded local men entering military service to count on their guardian angels.
Meanwhile, the world changed. Enrollment declined in the sisters’ high school, Lumen Cordium (Light of Hearts). When it closed in 1987, Sister Helen, its principal, and her friend Sister Regina Kusnir spearheaded the project to convert the beautiful building into a residential health care facility. Aware of the love that had developed the angel collection, they insisted their architect find a way to display it.
Today angels peer from hutches and curio cabinets throughout Light of Hearts Villa, but the largest group remains in the reception area, seizing the attention of first-time visitors — be they deliverymen, job interviewees, or relatives of residents.
The figurines officially became the facility’s property when the Vincentian Sisters of Charity merged with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati in 2004.
Sister Regina, who oversees pastoral care at Light of Hearts Villa, maintains the collection of approximately 2,000 angels. Like Sister Helen, she regularly addresses her guardian angel, whom she calls “Gibbs” after a character on the “NCIS” television series.
Before Christmas, Sister Regina stores some figurines in order to share Christmas angels and Nativity sets from around the world. She invites the public to view the collection upon signing in at the reception desk.
Noting that angels are God’s messengers, Sister Helen believes each donated figurine was a missive of love.
“The whole bottom line for angel giving is love,” Sister Helen said. “Jesus — who was born because of God’s love for us, and then these angels (present) at the birth of Jesus — Mary, Joseph and this choir of angels. It must have been beautiful!”