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Smithtown family keeps silky tradition alive

Luxury fabric from World War II German parachute made into christening gown, used throughout the years

Julie and Brian Celecia, with baby Justin wearing the christening gown, and daughters Camille and Isabella at Justinís christening last Sunday. Baby Justin, below. Photos from Julie Celecia
February 26, 2013 | 09:31 AM
To the eye, there is nothing unusual about the christening gown owned by the Celecia family. It's a well-worn shade of ivory, classically designed with delicate lace detail with a matching bonnet. The gown's origins, however, are anything but conventional: it was created using a piece of silk cut from a parachute the Smithtown family believes once belonged to a German soldier during World War II.

"It's not something that you might readily say to somebody — that this [fabric] came from an enemy's parachute," said Julie Celecia, whose 2-month-old son, Justin, was baptized wearing the gown on Sunday at Christ the King R.C. Church in Commack. "But it's not about that."

As with so many family heirlooms, it's about tradition.

Celecia's maternal grandfather, Joseph Chmiel, acquired the fabric while serving as a radar engineer in the war. He was stationed in North Africa when around 1943 the family believes a German plane went down and a large silk parachute was recovered. Chmiel and the other American soldiers each cut off a piece of the luxurious fabric.

"That was a sign of the times," Celecia said. "This wasn't a fabric people could afford to buy or even find at this time."

Celecia, 38, is a second-grade teacher in the Sachem school district who has two daughters, Isabella, 11, and Camille, 8, with husband Brian Celecia, 39, a director of operations and production at NBC.

Chmiel mailed the silk home to his mother, Antoinette, an accomplished seamstress, who began sewing it into a christening gown she hoped would be used for future grandchildren. At the time, Chmiel was dating the woman who would become his wife when the war ended — Celecia's grandmother, Helen.

"This was a promise that my grandfather knew; that he was going to come home and marry the woman he loved," Celecia said.

Celecia's grandfather did just that. His daughter, Paula — Celecia's mother — was the first baby to wear the gown in 1946. Since then, 12 other children, including Justin, have been christened in it, including Celecia and her two sisters, Amy and Jennifer, their brother Gregg and all of the siblings' children. Joseph Chmiel died in 1973. His widow, Helen, suffers from dementia.

"Tradition was always important in our family," said Celicia's older sister, Amy Trawinski-Marcin, who lives in Hamburg. "We are 100 percent Polish so a lot of those Polish traditions were carried down. The baptism gown just became another one of those traditions that we all really valued and wanted to continue to pass on to our children."

It's a custom that means more to the sisters today than ever. Their father, Joseph Trawinski, died in 2009, and their mother, Paula Trawinski, died in 2011.

"They saw six of the eight christenings in this gown," Celecia said of her parents. "It's a difficult thing, but knowing that the tradition goes on — that's the point of it. You have to teach your children these things."

She hopes future generations will continue to wear the gown, which Trawinski-Marcin keeps in a protective garment bag when it is not being used for baptisms. The dress has held up remarkably well over the years, she said, and only minor improvements have been made to it, like adding a bit of elastic to the sleeves to accommodate the arms of chubbier babies.

"It means a lot, especially as you see each child in it. It brings back memories," Celecia said. "You remember the other little ones that were in it and then we look back at pictures and it's just such a wonderful thing. It really is heartwarming."

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