First Communion dress links generations

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Paula Hrin believes that when her mother, Dolores Perniciaro, made Paula's First Communion dress nearly 60 years ago, she had no idea how special it would become.

The dress is in good shape even though it's been worn by 15 girls. It was rained on. And it was threatened by chocolate ice cream. But the dress survived and the treasured family tradition continues.

Since Paula's First Communion on May 9, 1959, at Holy Innocents Church in south St. Louis, Paula's three sisters, her daughter, seven nieces, one great niece and three granddaughters have worn the satin dress. All of the names and dates of the First Communions are stitched on the dress, now a bit faded, under a panel of lace.

Now, a 16th family member will be wearing the dress this month. Dolores Perniciaro died in 1991, and until then only her daughters and one of her grandchildren had worn the dress.

The dress has been worn at 10 Catholic churches — nine in the St. Louis area and one in Leawood, Kan.

Some of the family members to wear the dress gathered at Grandma Hrin's house in south St. Louis County recently when the newest member, Vanessa Hrin, a second-grader at St. Joseph in Imperial, tried on the 59-year-old dress. Paula panicked for a moment when Isabella Becker, the last one to wear the dress, started eating an ice cream sandwich at the dining room table over the dress. The dress was moved. A crisis was averted.

Earlier, Paula showed Vanessa where she intended to stitch her name. "Ma-Ma's is here, May 9, 1959. You're going to be under Aunt Nicole."

Vanessa asked about one of the names stitched on the dress, 1995 First Communicant Kathleen Perniciaro Duggin. "She lives in Denver," Paula said.

Paula mentioned a few First Communions, including her sister Diane Perniciaro Pappageorge's at Holy Innocents on Oct. 25, 1969, the only one in the fall. Three First Communions were on the same date, though years apart. Happily, none of the cousins had a First Communion on the same day and year.

Vanessa decided to wear the dress to imitate her sister and cousin. She'll also wear her grandmother's veil. Asked if her daughters will wear it, she winced. "If I have kids," she said with a shrug.

Taylor Hrin, a freshman at Lindbergh High School whose First Communion was in 2011 at Assumption Church in south St. Louis County, said "I just wanted my name on the dress. I decided it would be different, which is cool. And everyone else wore it, so I decided to wear it."

Isabella, a fifth-grader at Assumption School who made her First Communion there in 2015, said she wanted to keep the line going since all the other family members wore it. Her mom, Nicole Hrin Becker, wore the dress in 1989 at Most Precious Blood Church in Lemay. Nicole remembers that the dress was different than the other girls' dresses, but she wanted to wear the dress because her mom and aunts wore it.

"It's amazing" that the dress has been worn so many times through the years "and I'd love for it to continue, to keep going as long as possible," Nicole said.

Paula said she doesn't remember her First Communion. "It just makes me happy" to see all the girls wear it, she said. And she is pleased that they're not bothered by the fact that it's a cream color, not white, and stands out from the others.

Family members serve as stewards of the dress, which was cleaned once and probably won't be cleaned again because of its fragility. The girls wear it for the First Communion Mass and photos, then change clothes to minimize wear. The dress was altered a few times, including the lace added to the bottom. Paula is hesitant to make any other alterations.

When Taylor made her First Communion in a downpour, her dad put a shirt over it, fearing an umbrella wouldn't provide enough protection. 

Family tradition

Girls who wore the "Special First Communion Dress," the date and church:

• Paula Perniciaro Hrin, May 9, 1959, Holy Innocents

• Suzie Perniciaro Stremlau, May 9, 1964, Holy Innocents

• Marei Perniciaro Kaiser, May 3, 1968, Holy Innocents

• Diane Perniciaro Pappageorge, Oct. 25, 1969, Holy Innocents

• Nicole Hrin Becker, April 30, 1989, Most Precious Blood

• Christina Stremlau Bianchi, April 25, 1993, St. Dominic Savio

• Jamie Kaiser Rivali, April 24, 1994, Church of the Nativity, Leawood, Kan.

• Kathleen Perniciaro Duggin, May 7, 1995, Seven Holy Founders

• Theresa Kaiser, April 27, 1997, Church of the Nativity, Leawood, Kan.

• Elizabeth Kaiser, April 30, 2000, Most Precious Blood

• Seva Perniciaro, April 25, 2004, St. Elizabeth of Hungary

• Victoria (Pappageorge) Belgeri, May 2, 2004, Epiphany of Our Lord

• Sophia Perniciaro, May 4, 2008, St. Catherine Laboure

• Taylor Hrin, May 1, 2011 Assumption in south St. Louis County

• Isabella Becker, May 3, 2015, Assumption in south St. Louis County

Vanessa Hrin will make her first communion on April 28, 2018, at St. Joseph Church in Imperial. 

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