Annual Festival of Lights gets brighter each year

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

Sister Maria Fest, a Sister of Divine Providence, has watched the Festival of Lights grow from its beginning 16 years ago.

As a member of the order for 52 years and one of the first seven graduates of La Roche College, she visits the holiday event every year. She loves to stop at the La Roche alumni booth.

This year's Equitable Gas Festival of Lights will be from 3 to 9 p.m. Friday campuses of the sisters and the college, 9000 Babcock Blvd. in McCandless.

“It's an opportunity for people to see the educational partnership between the students from Providence Heights Alpha School and the college,” said Sister Maria of McCandless.

At the grade school, which is on the campus of the Sisters of Divine Providence, students will add to the festivities by singing carols, playing holiday music and taking part in the live nativity.

At the college, a craft show will be held at the Zappala College Center Square throughout the event. After the lighting of the Christmas tree at 6 p.m. outside the college center, Santa Claus will hold court in the Kerr Fitness and Sports Center and greet visiting children.

Members of 15 to 20 college organizations will help run the crafts and games for children at the sports center, said Colleen Ruefle, La Roche's vice president for student life and dean of students.

A few hundred students have volunteered to organize games or help children make simple crafts. In the past, members of one club helped children write letters to Santa, while students in another club constructed “antlers” made from youngsters' handprints.

“The kids made bird feeders — a pine cone spread with peanut butter,” Ruefle said.

The craft show, organized by college students, will welcome more than 50 crafters from the Pittsburgh area to the college center. Money raised through vendor fees will support a La Roche scholarship.

Ruefle, who has been with the college for 23 years, said she enjoys the festival herself, along with thousands of others who have made this event a family tradition.

“It's nice for alumni who now bring their children,” she said.

During the evening, visitors can walk between the campuses and take time to enjoy the music, the activities and each other.

“There are families galore and enough activities for the kids to do,” Sister Maria said.

Former Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star and World Series champion Kent Tekulve will serve as master of ceremonies for the tree lighting and sign autographs. The Pittsburgh Pirates Parrot will visit, as will the Pittsburgh Steelers' Steely McBeam, Equitable Gas Co.'s Freddy the Flame and the La Roche College Redhawk.

“The Festival of Lights celebrates the coming of the light, when it penetrated the darkness of the time,” Sister Maria said. “It's a part of Advent.”

The sacredness of the season will be in the spotlight at the Mother of Divine Providence Chapel. At 5:30 p.m., the Teen Chorale of the TriCounty Choir Institute will perform, followed by the Providence Heights Alpha School Band at 6:30 p.m. The Village Singers of the TriCounty Choir Institute will close the program there at 7 p.m.

In the Divine Providence auditorium, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Christmas movies for children will be shown, and Santa's Gift Shop will be open. Hot chocolate, cookies and popcorn will be served.

The live nativity and carol sing begin at 7 p.m. on the Divine Providence campus.

Cans for Cocoa, a food drive to benefit North Hills Community Outreach, will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. outside the John J. Wright Library on the college campus. Members of the La Roche Student Government will give out 12-ounce cups of cocoa in exchange for nonperishable food items.

The evening will conclude with a fireworks display at 8:45 p.m.

“The Festival of Lights builds a community atmosphere on the two campuses,” said Sister Maria, “and it's a nice outreach to our North Hills neighbors.”

Both the sisters and the college staff have gotten much better at planning the event, Ruefle said. While some scheduling of participants is completed in the summer, much of the work waits for late fall.

“We've had weather from 65 degrees to a snowstorm,” Ruefle, 46, of Hampton, said, of the festival itself. “It's fun watching fireworks in the snow.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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