Thanksgiving brings together faith, family
This Thanksgiving, Henry and Bernadette "Bernie" Drueke will have guests over to their house.
That’s not uncommon. What sets this family’s gathering apart is the decades-long tradition, and the gathering’s size.
For more than 30 years, the Druekes have opened their West Point farmhouse to relatives and friends on the holiday, drawing visitors from California to Canada, from Omaha and overseas, sometimes hosting more than 50 people for the meal.
The holiday often begins the night before, with a celebration of their Catholic faith.
"Our parish, St. Mary’s in West Point, has an evening Mass on Wednesday night that we usually attend, and if anyone’s here they go with us," said Bernie. "That way, we can get up in the morning and do the work."
The work, which begins at 3:30 in the morning and can see as many as 20 people helping in the kitchen, culminates in a dinner and a celebration of gratitude.
"I think everybody feels that we’ve been really blessed as a family," Bernie said. "As the years go on, we can see that we’re losing members, and we try to remember them when we say our opening prayer."
This year, Bernie said, she’ll miss her sister, who passed away in April – Sister Mary Thomas of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in St. Louis.
"She was the manager, she was our chief dishwasher," Bernie remembered. "But we know that she’ll be here looking down on us and making sure we’re doing everything right."
"Doing everything right" is the result of a tradition that began in the early 1980s, when Bernie convinced two of her sisters that the country – specifically the farm, which has been in Henry’s family for more than 100 years – was the proper place to celebrate Thanksgiving.
"Normally, all the married sisters would host one of the holidays," Bernie said. "But after that first year, it started to snowball."
Today, the couple play host to Bernie’s family. Originally a family of six girls and one boy, with Sister Mary Thomas’s passing, Bernie now has one brother still alive, residing in California and not always able to attend, and one sister. But her sisters and brother have had 22 children and 39 grandchildren – and many of them try to make the gathering.
Although Bernie and Henry provide all the trappings of a country Thanksgiving – a traditional hayrack ride, pickup football, games of tag that take place on giant piles of hay and more modern offerings such as ATV rides – they also provide a sense of faith, said their daughter, Mary Collins, a member of Holy Cross Parish in Omaha. She is a parishioner with her husband, Rusty, and her two stepsons and stepdaughter.
"We’re a big Catholic family, so faith and religion always have been important to all of us," she said. "And for being such a big family, we’re all really close – although we don’t always get to see each other," she said.
The Catholic faith played a part in Henry and Bernie’s courtship, as well. The couple met at a LaSalle Club dance, Bernie said, at Sokol Hall. They were married in St Francis of Assisi Church in Omaha.
The Druekes’ Thanksgiving tradition provides a meeting place not only for family, but for friends and acquaintances who might not otherwise have a place to go on Thanksgiving.
"Our family has always been very open and welcoming to others, not just at Thanksgiving," Collins said. "It’s unusual if somone new doesn’t come."
"Being from a small town, she makes it her business to see if there’s anyone in town (who can’t get home or see family)," said Susan Bednarz, the Druekes’ niece and a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Omaha.
"And they are invited, even to the point of her daughter going in the truck to pick them up. She shares her friends with us, and so we become a larger family, which is kind of what Jesus said – ‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them,’" Bednarz said.
Of course, the Druekes traditionally do better than two or three.
"Our record is 55 coming for dinner," Bednarz said.
The family always has a special prayer – a few years ago, Bednarz found one that mentions people gathering from far and wide. The Druekes also have a piano, and the family will sometimes join in a rendition of "We Gather Together" – one year, Bernie made copies of the music so everyone could sing.
Another relative’s husband is a professor from the University of Nebraska at Omaha who helps student interns from all over the world. He often brings them along.
"They really appreciate sharing in a different tradition," Bernie said.
One part of the Druekes’ tradition is figuring out how many people are there.
"We gather in the family room, hold hands and count off," Bednarz said. "And as they come to get their plate, everyone says something they are thankful for."
CIRCLE OF LIFE
And the tradition is continuing with newer generations. Bednarz’s niece and nephew now bring their small children to the gathering.
"We’ve had four or five generations at times," she said. "Every year we take photos. We always share those, and we like to go back and look at them each year."
For Bernie, that’s the real joy of the holiday.
"Just seeing everybody, and they’re enjoying themselves and being appreciative that they’re sharing it in a gathering, no matter what work we have to do, you feel so happy when you know you can do that," she said.
Her daughter agreed.
"It’s nice that we do take a moment before all the madness of the eating to say a couple of prayers and remember the people who aren’t going to be there," Collins said.
"It’s a perpetual thing," Bednarz said. "We are sharing with our family, and our family’s families. It’s a circle of family, a circle of life in God’s hand – I always feel so blessed."
Relatives of Henry and Bernadette Drueke of St. Mary Parish in West Point enjoy a sunset on the hay bales at the Drueke farm.
Members of the Drueke family get ready for a hayrack ride.
It’s a family affair at Thanksgiving dinner.