Tea is served at St. Mary Catholic Home

Tea is served at St. Mary Catholic Home

tea-webPhoto by James A. McBride







At Ladies’ High Tea on the afternoon of Friday, July 29, at St. Mary Catholic Home in Cherry Hill, Rose Venuti McGowan plays the violin as tea-goers sing along to the tune. At the monthly tea, designed to get residents out of their rooms and socializing with others, the ladies receive gifts while enjoying tea and small sandwiches.

CHERRY HILL — Here at St. Mary’s Catholic Home on Friday, July 29, tea time was 2 p.m. for the nine ladies.

The physical therapy lounge was decorated with bright, tropical colors, consistent with the Hawaiian theme for the monthly tea.

The residents, most in wheelchairs, were assisted to their places, where china cups and wrapped gifts of earrings and bracelets awaited them. As they settled in, a colorful lei was put around each neck.

Every month for the past two and a half years, volunteers at St. Mary’s have organized this for the women. All in their 80s or 90s, the residents are able to hold both a cup of tea and good conversation, and have proved that it’s never too late to make new old friends.

The tea is consistent with St. Mary’s which, since 1952, has been providing compassionate, high-quality care. Staffed by the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the home recognizes the physical realities of aging and the healing power of prayer.

Jane Brown, volunteer and activities coordinator at St. Mary’s Catholic Home, says the tea time was started as a way to bring together residents who weren’t going to the facility’s outings or daily entertainment, and to get them out of their rooms.

“We spoil them,” she said. “They have a wonderful afternoon.” With tea, small sandwiches, and sometimes even trivia, “we try to make it as enjoyable as possible for them.”

Every month, Brown sees a difference.

“For some of these ladies, this tea really makes a difference. They love it when they get their invitations — their face lights up. It’s like Christmas for some of them.”

The musical entertainment is provided by 93-year-old resident Rose Venuti McGowan, who plays such standards as “Over The Rainbow,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” on her violin, with an ever-present smile.

The Havertown native started learning violin at the age of 5, and musical expertise runs through her blood: her uncle, violinist Giuseppe “Joe” Venuti, led jazz bands in the 1930s and 1940s and was a regular on the Bing Crosby Radio Show in the 1950s.

Rose founded her own musical group, the Rose Venuti Trio, after high school and entertained all over the Philadelphia area. At Palumbo’s at Eighth and Catherine in Philadelphia, she remembers alternating the stage with a young pianist named Nat King Cole before he began his singing career.

During the tea, she stops only occasionally to take a bite of her sandwich or to sip tea. Songsheets are passed out to each lady to sing along.

“I play the music, and they all sing,” she said. “Music keeps me young.”

Margaret “Peg” Petkus, 83, is a relative newcomer to the tea, but has made friends fast. She and the other tea-goers talk about Philadelphia high schools, Jesuits and the Catholic faith.

“I haven’t been here that long, but I just feel like I’ve been here forever,” she said.

The teas bring “a camaraderie that you just feel. We start as strangers, but then you find something in common with somebody, and then you become part of this whole sphere of friendship.”

She and another resident, Isabelle Messal, constantly tease each other about their rival Philadelphia alma maters. Peg graduated from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School, while Isabelle graduated from West Philadelphia Catholic School.

For Isabelle, 94, the high teas have been “a miracle,” says her daughter, Marie-Therese Norris. A resident for three years, when she first got to St. Mary’s, Isabelle rarely left her room. With a bad hip, and after having lost her husband, son, best friend, home and autonomy, she wasn’t in the mood to make friends.

However, about a year ago, during her daughter’s visit, Isabelle told her that she was invited to, and attended, a high tea.

“She said, ‘I went to tea, and I want to go back,’” Marie-Therese recalls with a laugh.

“I saw a change in her, at that moment,” she says about her mother, after months of struggles at the nursing home.

“She looks forward to it, thinks about it. It’s just enough, to make her feel like she’s become a part of St. Mary’s. The high tea turned it all around; she’s a different person.”

“She’s come out of her shell; I thank St. Mary’s, Jane, and the high tea for that. This is a blessing for her and me.”

Isabelle, who tells the ladies about her time as a “Canteen Girl” during World War II, entertaining American and allied troops entering the Philadelphia Navy Yard, said, “I got to be friends right away with everyone. The women here are all so friendly, it’s impossible not to like them.”

Brown is glad that, since the tea, friendships have formed, and they go beyond just the once-a-month gathering. Now the women try to visit each other once a week, laughing, reminiscing, and enjoying each other’s company, tea or no tea.

“It’s wonderful, not seeing them so isolated,” Brown says. “The friendships that they are making here, we’re liking the results of it.”

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