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Tarentum church members, guests create sawdust carpets, a Corpus Christi tradition

| Monday, June 23, 2014, 12:31 a.m.
A finished sawdust carpet depicts the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus during the annual Corpus Christi celebration at Holy Martyrs Church in Tarentum on Sunday, June 22, 2014.
Victoria Oberdorf | For the Valley News Dispatch
A finished sawdust carpet depicts the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus during the annual Corpus Christi celebration at Holy Martyrs Church in Tarentum on Sunday, June 22, 2014.
Cubscout Pack 186 works on their sawdust carpet at Holy Martyrs Church on Sunday, June 22, 2014.
Victoria Oberdorf | For the Valley News Dispatch
Cubscout Pack 186 works on their sawdust carpet at Holy Martyrs Church on Sunday, June 22, 2014.
Members of the Holy Martyrs Parish in Tarentum work on their sawdust carpets during the annual Corpus Christi celebration on Sunday, June 22, 2014.
Victoria Oberdorf | For the Valley News Dispatch
Members of the Holy Martyrs Parish in Tarentum work on their sawdust carpets during the annual Corpus Christi celebration on Sunday, June 22, 2014.
Elizabeth Wombold creates the outline for her sawdust carpet at Holy Martyrs Church in Tarentum on Sunday, June 22, 2014.
Victoria Oberdorf | For the Valley News Dispatch
Elizabeth Wombold creates the outline for her sawdust carpet at Holy Martyrs Church in Tarentum on Sunday, June 22, 2014.

Not yet 2 years old, Cailyn Huey staggers toward a rectangle chalked out on the Holy Martyrs Roman Catholic Church parking lot and tosses a small handful of orange sawdust inside it.

She's too young to realize it, but she represents the sixth generation of her family to share in the tradition of making sawdust carpets at the Tarentum church to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi.

Since 1943, parishioners at Holy Martyrs have gathered annually to celebrate the Christian holiday by making the carpets. The designs typically represent the body and blood of Christ and are drawn with chalk across a 12-by-15-foot area before the lines are filled in with dyed sawdust.

As is tradition, visitors from out of state and other parishes pitched in on Sunday to help create 25 carpets that lined the parking lot. Some families, like the Hueys, had as many as three generations present to work on their designs.

“This is something that my great-grandfather was involved in,” said Jim Huey, 60, of Tarentum, Cailyn's grandfather and the event chairman of more than 20 years. “To see my granddaughter partaking in it now is pretty special. It's just a fun day.”

The Hueys' brightly colored carpet featured the words, “all signs point to God,” with various traffic signs enveloping the phrase. Again this year, the design came from Cailyn's aunt, Elizabeth Wombold, who moved to Orlando in 2009 but hasn't missed the celebration in 22 years.

“I see so many signs on my way up here every year, it just seemed like a natural fit,” said Wombold, 27. “It's important for me that I'm here, though. It's about my friends and family.”

Wombold is not alone. Mary Beth de Ribeaux drives nearly five hours from Gaithersburg, Md., for the celebration with her family every year.

It's a tradition that, for her, dates back to her time growing up in Tarentum with the maiden name Scanga. She remembers her grandfather participating in the first one, she said. Now she's passing the torch to the next generation of the Scanga family.

“With my mother here, we have three generations of Scangas,” she said. “You just hope that the kids will carry on the legacy. It's really a great and rich tradition.”

The tradition was brought to the parish more than 70 years ago by Father James McNamara, who was assistant pastor at the parish when it was known as Sacred Heart.

Originating from a seminary in the Black Forest region of Germany, the sawdust carpets began in Tarentum as a men-only event to help take their minds off the struggles of World War II. Over time, it grew more inclusive — first with the men's families, then with Christians throughout the area.

“We get people who aren't even Catholic,” said the Rev. Aaron Kriss, pastor of Holy Martyrs. “We get people who belong to churches that are in different dioceses. I think that shows that we have a meaningful tradition here and that people make it a priority. I applaud all who participated and those who made it happen.”

Each year, Artcraft Wood Productions Co. in Pittsburgh's North Side donates the sawdust. Artcraft this year delivered about 5,500 pounds, which volunteers began dyeing last Monday with cement mixers.

According to Huey, it takes about two hours to dye and sort the dust into the 21 colors that are available through the Tempe, Ariz.,-based producer, Pylam Products Co. Inc. It's a far cry, he said, from the methods used in the 1940s, when men would mix the dust and dye with mulch rakes for six colors.

As the mixing methods improved, Huey said, so did the carpets.

“Every year, they get a little more elaborate,” he said. “People get better at them. Some people get here before 7 a.m., and they barely stop working on them until the final Mass.”

The Corpus Christi celebration at Holy Martyrs culminates with an afternoon Mass and procession around the carpets before a street sweeper clears the parking lot at day's end.

This year, Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh led the ceremony.

“We need more peak moments like this,” said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, diocese spokesman. “Celebratory events like this bring us closer together and deepen our faith. The church is composed of traditions, but this one is special.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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