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Baptismal gown worn by five generations

Marie Bill Aurorfastens bracelet her granddaugther Madelynn Marie Miller five months Aurorwhile Madelynn's mom ErikMiller looks smiles minutes before Madelynn

Marie Bill, of Aurora, fastens a bracelet to her granddaugther, Madelynn Marie Miller, five months, of Aurora, while Madelynn's mom, Erika Miller looks on and smiles minutes before Madelynn was baptised on Sunday, December 11, 2011. Madelynn Miller's great great grandmother, Mary Frieders wore the same baptismal gown in 1885. | Michele du Vair~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 21, 2012 8:14AM

On a brisk December Sunday, 5-month-old Madelynn Marie Miller was gently placed into a beautiful, handmade baptismal gown and, in the presence of loved ones, welcomed into the Catholic faith.

Madelynn’s great-great grandmother Mary Frieders also was placed into that same baptismal gown, in the same church 126 years earlier.

The Aurora church, Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was only 10 years old when Mary Frieders was baptized. And the gown, a mere two years old. Mary’s mother had made it for her brother Michael in 1883.

And in the five generations that followed, roughly 50 descendants of Frieders have worn the gown.

“I think the tradition just happened,” said Rick Bill, Madelynn’s grandfather. “But it’s become a very emotional attachment over time. And as each generation gets christened in it, it becomes even more valuable.”

Rick Bill, who also was baptized in the gown, said it has become symbolic of the respect the family has for his grandmother, the first girl to wear the gown.

“She (Mary Frieders) was the matriarch of the family. She was the rock for sure,” he said.

Born and raised on a farm in Aurora, she was a seamstress and a devout Catholic who prayed the Novena every night.

Kenneth Bill, Rick’s brother, remembers running across the fields, now covered in concrete, to visit Mary on her farm, and having to use the outhouse, even in the 1940s.

“I remember grandma would not believe we landed on the moon,” Kenneth said, laughing. “She said that it was totally impossible. And she never drove a car either.”

But she did live to be 102, so that meant she got to see four generations wear her baptismal gown.

“I remember her,” said Erika Miller, 30, mother of Madelynn. “She was a very wonderful, genuine lady.”

Mary Frieders had three children, Louise, Clair and Dominick Thill, all of whom wore the gown, according to Rick Bill, of Aurora. Ownership of the gown ultimately followed Louise’s line. Louise married Lloyd Bill, and together they had Kenneth and Rick Bill. And yes, their children and their children’s children have all worn the gown.

“It hasn’t missed anyone,” Rick Bill said. “As far as I know.”

In the century Mary Frieders lived, so much in her life had changed. Her farm is now long gone. NASA landed on the moon a half dozen times and, just recently grew tired of studying it. And it’s pretty much a certainty Mary moved on to indoor plumbing. But the gown and the faith remained constant.

“I have a Catholic education as well as my husband, so it’s important in both of our families,” Erika Miller said. “It’s how we were raised, and it’s how we are going to raise our Madelynn. It’s a family tradition.”

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