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Every year in the true spirit of Christmas, the Libbon family gives a priceless gift to the residents of Ecumen Lakeshore in Duluth.
The extended Libbon family and some close friends join together to present a lay Christmas Eve service with music, singing and scripture. “Christmas with the Libbons,” as it’s now billed, is the highlight of the holidays for many residents.
The tradition started 16 years ago, when Paul Libbon was executive director at Bayshore Care Center in Duluth, which was then an Ecumen nursing home. Paul thought the Christmas holiday was, frankly, not very merry.
Paul told his wife, Sarah, that he wanted to bring more joy to Christmas for the residents who could not travel to be with family and for the staff who worked on the holiday. Sarah, the daughter of a pastor, had grown up with music and had been singing all her life. She was in.
They decided to perform Christmas music for the residents and host a lay service. The idea has now blossomed into a highly anticipated standing-room-only event in Ecumen Lakeshore’s Elsing Chapel. In 2008, when Paul became the Executive Director at Lakeshore, he brought the Christmas celebration with him. By that time, his two daughters were full participants in the service.
It was just one of those things, Paul says, that kept growing as its reputation developed. Now Paul is an Ecumen Regional Director, overseeing nine Ecumen sites, including Lakeshore, and the tradition continues to evolve.
Paul plays guitar and piano. Sarah is the featured singer. Daughter Elizabeth plays viola and daughter Anna plays cello. Over the years Paul’s father, Bob, who passed away last year, often read the scripture, and his mother, Bea, now a resident at Ecumen Lakeshore, sometimes read.
His sister, Joy Walter, gives the homily. Dane Walter, Joy’s son, sings. Last year Paul’s brother Nathan was called in to sing at the last minute when Sarah got laryngitis. Friends of Elizabeth and Anna — Elise and Bryne Hauer — come and play their violins. The Hauers also have a close connection to Lakeshore through their grandmother, Faye Green, now deceased, who was an Activity Director here for many years.
It’s not as if everyone just shows up and plays music. Paul and Sarah are exacting in their preparations and are constantly working to improve the program.
Bea Libbon, Paul’s mother, recalls that creating the event was challenging in the beginning years but says it’s coming together much more smoothly now. “I’ve scrutinized the whole thing over the years and offered suggestions,” she says with a laugh. “That’s what mothers’ do. It’s become such an important part of our own family tradition.”
Alice Olson, the chaplain at Ecumen Lakeshore, says she especially appreciates how the Libbons make everyone feel so at home. “It’s such a friendly and ecumenical setting,” she says. “It’s a lay-led service open and welcoming to all. This is a real gift to our residents. It makes their Christmas.”
“I think it is absolutely awesome,” JoAnn Bryant, a resident of The Crest. “I’d have to be sick to miss it. I look forward to it every year.”
“They are a very talented family,” says Crest resident Juanita Carlson.