by Paula M. Riley
On a sunny spring day in April, a large family came to Our Mother of Consolation Catholic Church for the baptism of Emma Jane Lyons. From the outside, it seemed like the standard christening, complete with the baby dressed in white, eager parents, extended family members and a member of the clergy.
Upon closer examination, it was clear that this was not just another baptism. Rather, it was a moment stolen from a storybook about family connections.
As 4-month-old Emma Jane was carried down the main aisle of the old church in Chestnut Hill, she followed the same path that her parents, grandparents and great grandparents took when they got married. Both sets of Emma Jane’s grandparents were married at OMC Church.
Emma Jane is the 14th great grandchild to lifelong Chestnut Hill resident Pat Leaming and her late husband, Bax, who were married Nov. 3, 1951. Sixty-one years later, on that same day, in a church in Richmond, Va., their son Frank was ordained a deacon of the Catholic Church.
An alumnus of Our Mother of Consolation parish school, Frank Leaming went on to attend La Salle College High School and St. Joseph’s University. He moved to Virginia and worked for the Department of Defense for three decades. During this time, he and his wife were heavily involved in their church community. They served multiple roles in the parish and at home, were foster parents for 30 years to more than 100 children.
Why pursue the diaconate in his retirement?
“I felt a call to do more, but was unsure what it meant,” Frank said.
Together with friends, Frank became involved with the Cursillo Movement, a way to grow in Christian community through sustained prayer, sharing and study. From this experience, Frank and a few friends decided to enter the diaconate program.
“I felt like we were enlisting in the Army together,” Frank said.
After four years of study, Frank obtained his Master’s Degree in theology. In his capacity as deacon he organizes liturgies, serves on the altar during Mass and performs baptisms and marriages. He explains that the deacon role in the Catholic Mass is purposeful and is included at specific points in the service to reflect the deacon’s role as having one foot in the community and one foot in the ordained.
Returning to Philadelphia for Emma Jane’s baptism was special for Frank. He was accompanied by seven of his eight siblings and their children and grandchildren. Both Frank’s mother, Pat, and his older brother Jack described him as always having been “good.”
“When we (siblings) were younger, we’d come together and talk about all the trouble we got into, but not Frank,” said Frank’s older brother Jack Leaming. “He was always the good one, always ‘Mr. Steady.’ We weren’t at all surprised he became a deacon.”
All the Leaming children have wonderful memories of their years attending OMC School and their days in Chestnut Hill. Seven of the Leaming children still live in the area and every Sunday, at 9 a.m. Mass, Pat is accompanied by her grandchild and great grandchildren.
Sunday’s baptism was a reunion for many. Joining the celebration were Pat and Ted Bahner, close friends of Pat and Bax Leaming. Pat Bahner tells the story of how she met Pat Leaming.
“I was waiting for the trolley car at Abington Avenue and Pat drives up in her car and asks me if I was going to church,” she said. “I had never seen her before, but when I replied ‘yes,’ she told me to ‘hop in,’ and we have been friends ever since.”
The Bahners raised six children and sent them to OMC as well. After spending 10 years in South Jersey, they have relocated to the area and are thrilled to celebrate special occasions with old friends.
In speaking with family members at the baptism, they told many stories of the Leaming family’s connection to OMC and Chestnut Hill. The stories, however, don’t end with the Leamings.
Emma Jane’s mother, Maryjane, tells an endearing account of meeting her husband, Pat Leaming’s grandson Jim Lyons III, when they were 12 years old on the swim team at Sunny Willow Swim Club. A teacher in Upper Dublin, Maryjane said, “My students just love to hear that story.”
Her husband Jim recalls that when they got married in 2008, the renovation of the OMC Church had just been completed.
“It’s ironic, but when my grandparents got married here there was scaffolding – a renovation was just beginning, and when we got married, one had just completed,” he said.
On this sunny April day, the scaffolding was gone, and Deacon Frank, with Emma Jane’s 2-year-old sister Beatrice (named for her great-great-grandmother) standing beside him, invited Jim to carry Emma Jane to his family members. They each traced the sign of the cross on her head.
Bright light shone through the church’s awesome stained glass windows, and, once again, a family member was created in the special place the Leaming’s call OMC.