The reason for this story is the 29th annual flower festival at St. Cecilia Cathedral. It takes place Saturday and Sunday, when the big, beautiful church will be filled with flowers. The theme is “South Pacific.” Dozens of volunteers make it happen. Thousands of visitors are expected. The cathedral will transform, people like to say.
So, the flower festival.
But this story is really about one of those thousands of visitors. For her, this year's festival means something especially important.
“God's intervention,” she says, quickly embarrassed by the phrase. “Normally I don't talk like that.”
Her name is Reynette Leimomi AhSam. She has lived in Bellevue since the late 1980s. She comes from Hawaii. She grew up on the east side of the Big Island. Her husband, Ralph, grew up on a massive ranch on the opposite side, amid cattle and cowboys. They never would have crossed paths in Hawaii, they say. It was Nebraska that brought them together. Military service and Nebraska.
They're in their 50s now, with two kids. Ralph retired from the military after 21 years and co-founded a couple companies, including a vineyard in Iowa. Reynette found her calling in volunteering. It's how she learned about the Cathedral Flower Festival in the first place.
She was working an event for her own parish when a guest noted that St. Cecilia's flower festival theme was Hawaiian this year and suggested she get involved. She was told to contact Brother William Woeger, founder and executive director of the Cathedral Arts Project, which puts on the festival.
Reynette gave her information to be passed along but had no plans to attend herself.
“I can't handle crowds that big,” she says.
Reynette didn't hear from Brother William at first and didn't think much of it. Then another acquaintance with ties to the festival contacted her. Again, she gave her information to be passed along.
Then the call came. Brother William invited Reynette to the cathedral. She told him how she could help. She mentioned the historical pieces she and her husband possessed, artifacts from the monarchy that governed the islands for much of the 1800s. She offered to reach out to the large contingent of Hawaiian students at Creighton University for authentic dance demonstrations. She said she'd contact a florist she knew in Hawaii to bring actual South Pacific flowers to the festival. She went on and on. The meeting lasted more than two hours.
“You never know who you're going to meet, who can help you out,” she says.
But she doesn't mean her helping him.
“When I met Brother William, he was exactly who I needed to meet,” she says through tears.
* * *
Brother William Woeger is no stranger to the islands. A consultant to liturgical architecture projects, Woeger's work regularly takes him to Honolulu for a restoration project on a historic cathedral.
“Many people fly into Honolulu, go to Waikiki, spend a week and think they have experienced Hawaii,” he says. “If you want to know the culture, it helps to leave the tourist centers and go to the country. Even better, get to know the locals and let them tell their stories. Then you will begin to appreciate how amazing and interesting the people and the place really is.”
He brought that attitude to this year's flower festival. The South Pacific theme was not the whimsical decision of a post-prom committee. He wanted the event to acknowledge the history and celebrate the culture of the islands.
In Reynette AhSam, Brother William met someone who could help deliver the “spirit of aloha.”
And in Brother William, Reynette found someone who knew Hawaiian history and took her culture seriously.
“I didn't have to explain to him it's not the hula skirts and the wacky-tacky tourist crap,” she says. “I didn't have to tell him that.”
That alone doesn't explain what made her so emotional about the encounter. She had gone through a rough patch in the months prior. She'd felt burned by one experience, disappointed with how her Hawaiian heritage was treated. Another setback left her doubting herself.
"I went into a depression," she says. “I shut down.”
Then Brother William called.
“Somebody who understands being Hawaiian and understands what we are,” she says.
A while back, Reynette and her husband realized something. They'd been living outside of Hawaii for longer than they lived there. That felt weird. Most of their family members live there. But it's been almost four years since they've been back. Lately, their family comes to Nebraska for visits.
“They love it here,” Ralph says. “They think it's beautiful.”
Reynette and Ralph suspect they'll return to Hawaii later in life. Being away for such a long stretch makes the desire even stronger, the memories even fonder. Reynette thinks about it in smells. The ocean. The food. The flowers.
“It takes you back to when you were a kid,” she says.
That's what she's looking forward to this weekend at the flower festival. She'll attend after all, large crowds notwithstanding.
She knows the cathedral will be organized into almost three dozen areas, a tour of sorts through this ecclesiastical Midwestern South Pacific.
But she intends to craft her own tour. She looks forward to visiting with her family, leading her kids around. It'll be a tour seen through her own eyes. Spaces reimagined by florists, then rearranged again in her own mind into something real.
“I can tell our story,” she says. “That's the important part.”
Cathedral Flower Festival Full Schedule
9 a.m., Robert Glaser, piano, in the nave
9 a.m., Dr. Laura Palmer, organ, in the chapel
10 a.m., OPS Mini Singers, in the nave
10 a.m., Kenneth Bé, lute, in the chapel
11 a.m., Zachary and Lauren Turner, mezzo soprano and piano, in the nave
11 a.m., “The Gentle Sounds of Tenderly.” Clare Horning, saxophone/clarinet, Marsha Grote, accordion, in the chapel
12 p.m., Hui O Hawai'i (Creighton University), in the nave
12 p.m., Mele Alo Lachowski, Dances of the South Pacific, in the chapel
1 p.m., Hui O Hawai'i (Creighton University), in the nave
1 p.m., Omaha Suzuki Strings, in the chapel
2 p.m., Violinists (Studio of Melissa Pruss), in the nave
2 p.m., Jim Nailon, guitar/vocal, in the chapel
3 p.m., Dr. Michael Bauer, organ, in the nave
4 p.m., Preparation for Mass
7 p.m., Jerry Brabeck, piano/vocal, in the nave
7 p.m., Dr. J. Christensen, organ, in the chapel
8 p.m., Mark Kurtz, organ, in the nave
1 p.m., Archdiocesan Childrens' Choir, in the nave
1 p.m., Mayumi Naramuri, organ, in the chapel
2 p.m., David Shack and Dr. Claire Bushong, organ, in the nave
2 p.m., Marta Brabec, guitar/vocal, in the chapel
3 p.m., Nola Jeanpierre, soprano, Dr. Claudette Valentine, accompanist, in the nave
3 p.m., Jim Harvey, violin, in the chapel
Hawaiian photographs by Dan Bishop will be on display throughout the weekend in the Cathedral Cultural Center, where treats from Wheatfield's will be available. Ku´uipo Kumukahi and the Hawaiian Hall of Fame Serenaders will perform on Saturday morning and afternoon, and again Sunday afternoon. Creighton University's Hui O Hawai'i student organization will offer hula lessons at 2 p.m. on Saturday.