For many, the winter holidays are a time of togetherness. But they can also be a stark reminder of the recent loss of loved ones. For nearly two decades, Wrangell has begun the holiday season with a ceremony of remembrance for those who have passed on.
In the high-ceilinged lobby of Wrangell’s Nolan Center, a small Christmas tree with gold and white decorations stands dwarfed between two 20-foot high totems. But its purpose isn’t small at all.
Known as the Dove Tree, it’s a nearly two-decade-old tradition meant to give community members a time at the outset of the holiday season to remember and grieve loved ones lost in the years previous.
Central is the symbolism of a white dove. Hospice of Wrangell’s Alice Rooney penned a story about the bird and its importance. Cindy Martin read the story at this year’s ceremony, which took place on Nov. 28. It concludes: “No matter what your religious beliefs are, and whether the dove means to you, we hope the dove brings you comfort.”
The annual Dove Tree ceremony is an interfaith celebration. Pastor Sue Bahleda of Wrangell’s Island of Faith Lutheran Church delivered the homily.
“We — each of us — are unique and particular and special,” Bahleda said. “There is no one else who has lived our story, yet in all that diversity we hold one thing in common. We die. And that is what has gathered us here today — to hold for one moment longer, the memory of those who have died. They are our mothers and our fathers, our children, our spouses, our family, our neighbors, our friends. They were ordinary and amazing. Sometimes ornery and awful, and what will we do without them? I appreciate that the symbol that we use to mark this day is a dove. It is the symbol of peace. And as we speak of those who have died, we often express this hope, ‘May they rest in peace.’ They do. I have entire faith and confidence in this.”
Wrangell also celebrated and remembered loved ones with music. Wrangell assistant librarian Sarah Scambler sang the Rogers and Hammerstein tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” accompanied by Rooney.
The Dove Tree and ceremony were started by Wrangell nurse Trudy Johnson in 2003 after a triple murder-suicide rocked the community. The nature of the crime meant closure was difficult. The ceremony has carried on every year since, organized by Hospice of Wrangell.
Little has changed, except for precautions taken earlier during the pandemic when the tree was moved to an outdoor pavilion downtown. The paper doves were secured with wires so they wouldn’t blow away, and the 2020 program was broadcast on KSTK.
Wrangell tribal citizen Thomas Rooney, Jr. drummed as volunteers read the names of Wrangell’s loved ones who have passed on in the last year. Slowly, community members placed white paper doves on the branches of the tree.
After the reading of names and placing of doves, Bonnie Demerjian on cello and Alice Rooney on piano played “Heroes of Longhope,” a Scottish fiddle tune written to commemorate the crew of a rescue vessel who were lost in a storm.
The Dove Tree will stay in the lobby of the Nolan Center through the new year. Paper doves are available for anyone who lost a loved one to add their name to the tree.