December 18, 2004
Candlelight shimmered off table crystal, lockets and smiling faces as a roomful of women gathered for their formal Christmas banquet, and men of the church attended to their every culinary need.
Annabelle Wise, at 100 years old, said she has probably made it to every Women’s Candlelight Dinner in the four decades they have been held each December at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church in Tempe.
"I just love this church," she said, noting that the dinners have always given her "the feeling of solidarity and friendship."
"I’m very fortunate to be alive and to be here," she said.
It’s a tradition that Wise and most women of the church earnestly anticipate — the dressing up and enjoying a night of fine food, singing familiar carols, hearing an inspiring speaker and a chance to win one of the many raffle items that Sue Schulze aggressively solicits from merchants.
About 115 church women and guests sat around 14 tables in the original sanctuary of the church on a recent Saturday evening. Each table was tastefully decorated around a theme, with the utmost originality by the table’s hostess. Carol Parks designed hers with a special tablecloth and napkins, a fine assortment of candles and small bags of M &M’s each topped with a red cardinal.
Some tables were graced with pine cones, tree ornaments, wreathes, foil and peppermints as accoutrements for their candle centerpieces.
Parks, who has been attending the dinner since 1970, does the environment’s main decorations and always creates an original room setting on a stage. This year’s was a holiday-decorated 1950s kitchen, with a red checkerboard tablecloth lifted back to leave a wooden tabletop where a homemaker had rolled out cookie dough and had begun cutting it, then had to leave abruptly to take a phone call. A cookbook was open on a side table, while her Bible lay at the other end of the table, with reading glasses abandoned on them.
At her table, Sandy Rhudy used all forms of crystal for candles, water glasses and more. The pieces served to infinitely radiate light around that space. One of her table guests was her 82-year-old mother, Lola Mae Heltman, who had been to eight previous dinners.
"It is just a fun night, and we enjoy it," she said. "Every table is different."
Rhudy did her table in a Mexican theme last year.
"The nicest thing about this is getting waited on by the men because it is usually the other way around," she said.
Lew Durst and his seven volunteer waiters dressed in white shirts, ties and dark pants and moved smoothly from kitchen to tables delivering salads, chicken piccata and the "New York cheesecake enhanced with a citrus flower and garnished with a fresh strawberry."
"We enjoy seeing them enjoy themselves," Durst said.
For years, the meal was cooked in the church kitchen — by the ladies who had to rush home afterward to get dressed up and come back to church for the event and make sure the men had their instructions.
But church member Maureen Bliler, a resort food and beverage manager, now caters the meal and works with the male servers.
Among Durst’s crew was the church’s pastor, the Rev. Shealds Smith, who took light ribbing from the women for being the "good servant" or was told how the lettuce was more crisp than his sermons or not to spill water on them because they’ve already been baptized by a preacher.
"It’s a major event for us," he said. "It’s something the ladies have been doing for years and years. The ladies are very, very happy to put this together to make it happen, so it’s a joy for us to be part of it. And whatever they tell me to do, I don’t mind."
One of the youngest attending was Angela Berry, 16, who beamed in the candlelight, sitting a couple of chairs from centenarian Wise.
"This is so beautiful," she said. "It’s so pretty, everybody is talking, nobody is sitting by themselves. It’s is so upbeat."
Eleanor Brierley, women’s ministry chairman, said the room, lit by arrangements of candles, fundamentally symbolized "the light and joy of the season" and the light for the world symbolized in Christ’s birth. The evening ended with a prayerful singing of "Silent Night."
"It’s just the highlight of the year," Schulze said. "We put more into this party than anything else — and everybody dresses up to the nines."
Durst’s table crew was happy they wouldn’t have to roll up the sleeves of their white shirts and wash dishes. The plates and tableware were disposable.