SPRINGFIELD: Champaign, Illinois congregation continues Easter egg tradition

March 8, 2010

They're Easter eggs, and yet they're angels, movie and comic book superhero lookalikes, traditional seasonal rabbits and ducks and not-so-conventional geckos and frogs, even Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, a basketball player, a church mouse, bishops and nuns.

Decorating Easter eggs has been a tradition and a national seller for the altar guild at Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church in Champaign, Illinois in the Diocese of Springfield, since 1927.

Jill Knappenberger, 91, estimated that she has helped to boil and decorate thousands of eggs since she began participating in 1953.

"I first got involved when I moved to Champaign and the altar guild was doing this work. They talked about a bride egg," she said March 8, during a short break from boxing completed eggs in bubble wrap for pick-up and mailing. "I said, why don't you have a permanent display?"

So, she started one. She even managed to secure a few eggs from the early years, when the altar guild made tiny pinpricks in shells and blew out the insides before dyeing and decorating them.

"Can you imagine blowing out 3,700 eggs? We don't do that anymore," said Marjorie Bouton, who has participated in the egg ministry since 1968. "We just boil them now. You can keep them for 20 or 30 years, as long as they don't break. They don't smell and after awhile the yolk becomes a little hard ball and you can shake them."

Bouton said the group decorated and expects to sell about 1,700 eggs this year, less than half as in some previous peak seasons.

The eggs are sold for $4 each, or a set of five for $20. Proceeds are used to purchase altar linens, vestments and communion bread and wine, she said.

The eggs have become such a tradition that they have been bequeathed back to the church via their owners' wills. "Those we sell for one dollar," Bouton said.

For Carol Hubbard, 51, "egg fever" has become a family tradition. "I grew up in Champaign and when we were kids my mom would get eggs from the church," Hubbard said during a March 9 telephone interview from the church, where she was picking up 15 eggs.

"When I had children, my mom continued to get eggs for her grandchildren. Mom passed away five years ago but I've kept up the tradition even though we live in Danville, Indiana," roughly a two-hour drive away.

"I come over once a year and pick up eggs for my 13-year-old twin daughters. Now, I'm getting extra sets for friends and I brought a friend. She's got egg fever, too.

"I've always been amazed at what the altar guild can do with an egg," she added. "My daughters are always so thrilled when it's time to bring out the Easter eggs. We've kept them 13 years now. They're special to us."

The tradition began in 1927 when a young mother moved to Champaign from Wichita, Kansas, and made the eggs for her three sons, "maybe just a half-dozen with painted faces and pointed caps," Knappenberger said.

"Her sons brought the eggs to Sunday school and of course, the other children wanted them. She made more the next year, and the next, and eventually the altar guild took over the project."

For the altar guild, it's a yearlong process. After Easter, they'll begin work on next year's project. But Knappenberger was mum about possible 2011 creations. "Maybe a panda. I've got ideas. But we won't know till May."

In May, the guild gathers "and everybody brings in the designs they think might work and the group votes on which ones they'd like to make," added Bouton.

The next step involves the materials purchase -- everything from paper cups for use as egg holders to thread, bows, flowers, dye and spray paint "to felt and shaky eyes and things like that," she said. Over time, felt -- as cover for the paper cup holders -- and other materials replaced the original paper products used to decorate the eggs.

For example, this year's angel has white garments "and a whole bunch of beautiful sparkly twine for halos, and little white wings. We drew the face on and had little hands praying that were made out of felt. That was special," Bouton said.

There is lots of "fun and camaraderie" during the cut-and-paste production phase, she added. Typically, the group gathers on Tuesday mornings to cut out the designs.

In the fall, "we order the eggs from the local store and start the boiling," Bouton said.

But according to Knappenberger, there's more than one way to boil an egg.

"We get these eggs and we put them in large commercial kettles," said Knappenberger, who was featured in a 2008 WILL-TV documentary about Illinois World War II veterans.

Her experiences as one of three women who served on the front lines during the Battle of the Bulge were chronicled in the documentary. She operated a refitted truck dubbed a "clubmobile," from which she passed out donuts, coffee and cigarettes to combat troops.

"I went places the war correspondents didn't even go," Knappenberger recalled. "I was shot at, but I got out. My twin brother Jack (John Joseph Pitts III), an Army captain, didn't. He was killed. He's buried in Luxembourg."

Knappenberger said the eggs will "last indefinitely as long as they aren't cracked."

To prevent cracking, "we put them in the kettles with pieces of torn sheets, bed linen. We take the old sheets and cut them to the size of the kettle. We put slashes in them so when the water boils it pushes the fabric up and keeps the eggs from cracking against each other."

And for those hard-boiled eggs that, in spite of the guild's best efforts, still fracture, Knappenberger has devised a practical solution.

"I concocted what I call 'Eggs Emmanuel' … I shell them and add green pepper. I use cream of mushroom soup diluted with sherry. The sherry makes them Emmanuel, and I serve them on an English muffin or Holland rusk toast. It makes a nice ladies' luncheon."

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