Catholic Sentinel photos by Clarice Keating
Edie Vanderzanden and Maria Carrillo, longtime Altar Society members.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Clarice Keating
Edie Vanderzanden and Maria Carrillo, longtime Altar Society members.

INDEPENDENCE — As the women of St. Patrick Altar Society bustle about, setting out bouquets, placing candles and folding altar cloths, tiny Edie Vanderzanden is always there to offer advice on what goes where.

If anyone knows how to dress an altar for Easter, it’s Vanderzanden. At 91, she is St. Patrick’s oldest parishioner and longest-running Altar Society member. This will be her 66th year helping get the church sparkling clean and elegantly decorated for Holy Week.

“She wants everything to look perfect,” said Diana Lindskog, parish secretary and longtime member of the Altar Society.

Everyone in the community knows Vanderzanden. Though she is petite, standing at just below 5 feet (and shrinking, she says), Vanderzanden is unmistakable as she hops out of the big van she drives from her farm at the edge of town. She fills every room with warmth, greeting friends and strangers alike with a hug and kiss on the cheek.

“There just aren’t very many people like Edie anymore,” Lindskog said.

Born in 1920, Vanderzanden was raised in Seattle during the Depression Era. She and her husband Ernie bought their 120-acre farm in 1945, and started a family that eventually grew eight children. Ernie worked in the lumber industry, while Vanderzanden stayed at home, running the home and farm. She canned fruit from the farm, pears, peaches, prunes, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries.

When she began attending Mass at St. Patrick’s back in 1945, Vanderzanden discovered that the Altar Society had fizzled years before. She and 11 other women revived the ministry in 1946. Vanderzanden was the secretary and treasurer then, and has been an active member ever since.

Just as they do today, the ladies gathered once a month for general business and to plan their two annual fundraisers – a spring rummage sale and a fall bazaar. Their husbands would come along, too, and play cards while the ladies worked.

“The only times I missed our meetings was when I was ill or when Ernie wasn’t doing well,” Vanderzanden said. She took care of her husband before he passed away last year after 65 year of marriage.  

For decades, trees on Vanderzanden’s farm have been used for the boughs that adorn the church at Christmastime.

Cedar branchlets come from a tree Vanderzanden planted during World War II. Palms were hard to come by, so the priest at Vanderzanden’s church blessed tiny cedar cuttings and passed them out on Palm Sunday. Vanderzanden’s mother rooted hers and Vanderzanden planted the tiny sapling on the corner of her farm.

It grows taller every year. Vanderzanden also has a favorite holly tree from which she brings decorative sprigs to spruce up the church during holidays.

On a recent afternoon, Vanderzanden and Maria Carrillo, who moved to Independence from Texas in 1951, pored over the Altar Society’s old account book, commenting on penmanship and laughing about the small account balances from the society’s early decades.

People come and go and greet the two women who are so well known around the church.

“They help the parish very well,” said pastor, Msgr. Carl Gimpl, of the Altar Society. “They keep pushing for the things that need to be done. They are a great bunch.”

In the days leading up to Easter, Vanderzanden and Carrillo will both be back in the parish, working with the other Altar Society ladies to prepare for the many people who will come to church for the Vigil Mass and Easter Sunday service.

“Edie always finds the time,” Lindskog said. “If there is a funeral or someone is ill, she’ll whip up a hot dish and take it over or just go for a visit.”

Whether it’s helping at Advent services or preparing dinner for the priest, Vanderzanden is always willing to help those around her. 

“She’s always thinking about other people and praying for other people,” Lindskog said. “And everything she does is done with love.”