St. Brigid's School fifth-graders Finn Maloney (left) and Matthew Ciampi help carry a large box of donated items bound for the needy in Portland on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.  Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — A crowd of nearly 330, bundled-up school children gathered outside St. Brigid’s Catholic elementary school on Stevens Avenue in Portland on Wednesday afternoon with more than a dozen boxes of donated winter clothes and hand warmers, bound for a local charity, sat piled in front of them.

The school’s resident priest, Rev. Paul Sullivan, then raised his hands over the pile.

“We’re all going to bless them together,” Sullivan said.

He then led his young flock in prayer.

Students at St. Brigid’s School in Portland (from left) Caroline Rousseau, Simone Fultz and Sydney Rousseau, hold signs asking for clothing donations before classes on Tuesday morning, Feb. 1, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The devotion was the final part of a St. Brigid’s Day ritual connecting the Portland students with a 1,500-year-old slice of their faith’s Irish past. It also aligns them with even older, pagan rituals celebrating the Earth’s turn toward spring while also helping needy present-day members of their own city.

The clothes, provided by students and their families, are being donated to Preble Street, a local non-profit organization working with the city’s homeless population.

“Giving back to the community is central to our mission at St. Brigid,” said parent and event co-coordinator Meredith Rousseau. “It is never too early to start instilling a sense of social responsibility in our children.”

The clothes were collected in accordance with old, Catholic Irish traditions.

Shaelle Umwiza, a first-grader at St. Brigid’s School in Portland, puts warm items knitted by her grandmother into a donation box outside her classroom on Tuesday Feb. 1, 2022. The clothing was then left overnight in the hall for St. Brigid to bless. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

In that country, on St. Brigid’s Day, which is Feb. 1, some believers leave an article of clothing outside for the saint to bless. The item is then believed to have special healing or protective powers.

Likewise, student’s at St. Brigid’s left the donated hats, mittens and long underwear outside their classrooms overnight on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, for good measure, they all blessed the clothes with Rev. Sullivan.

“This year, the feast of St. Brigid landed during our Catholic schools week celebration, and we wanted to do something specific to honor her,” said parent and event co-chair Lauren Tigerman.  “Many of our neighbors are in need of healing and protection right now, and in collecting clothing for those in need, we hope to offer them some.”

St. Brigid is thought to have been born around 451 A.D. in Ireland. She was known for miraculous acts of charity and feeding hungry people around her.

These days she is a very busy Cathiolic saint.

Clockwise, from left: Fifth-graders at St. Brigid’s School in Portland, Kristin King (left) and Brooke Brunelle, help carry boxes of donated winter clothing to a makeshift altar in the parking lot where they were later blessed on Wednesday, Feb. 2; Brady Pearce (left) and Angel Nguyen, both first-graders at St. Brigid’s School in Portland, pray with Rev. Paul Sullivan as he blesses donated winter clothing at their school on Wednesday; Students at St. Brigid’s School in Portland walk by a clothing donation box outside their classroom on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

St. Brigid is the patron saint of many people and things, including babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, children whose mothers are mistreated by their fathers, dairy workers, fugitives, midwives, poets and printing presses.

Along with St. Patrick and St. Columba, St. Brigid is also one of the patron saints of Ireland.

In Ireland, St. Brigid’s importance and popularity are on the rise as the female equivalent of the much better known St. Patrick. Starting next year, Ireland will celebrate her feast day as an official national holiday, with banks and schools closed.

St. Brigid’s Day is built upon the even older, ancient Celtic festival of Imbolc. Imbolc is also celebrated on Feb. 1 every year, in the northern hemisphere.

That date marks the halfway point between the winter solstice — the shortest day of the year — and the spring equinox, when we see 12 hours of both light and darkness.

The similarly named Celtic goddess Brid, associated with Imbolc, also has similar traits as St. Brigid. Both are known for their healing powers and as symbols of growth, renewal and a turn toward the light of spring.

Rev. Paul Sullivan leads students at St. Brigid’s School in Portland as they bless donated winter clothing on Wednesday Feb. 2, 2022. The clothing will be donated to Preble Street, a nonprofit which works with the city’s homeless population. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Groundhog Day is a relatively modern adaptation of the same calendar-based ritual, substituting a weather-forecasting rodent for Brid or Brigid.

Regardless of the ancient connections, Tigerman said parents and students at St. Brigid’s are mostly just happy to be doing good for their community in the present.

“Service to others is important to students at St. Brigid School, and projects like these remind us that this value is deeply rooted in our Catholic Tradition and that we can apply that service to people in our very own community,” she said.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.