In a black-and-white photograph, John Caybut stands in front of Oakland’s Saint Augustine Catholic Church with his mother, father, sister, and brother.
The picture was taken in 1965. Caybut passed away in February. Today, his sister is the photograph’s only surviving subject.
Caybut’s widow, Sabina, has placed the picture on a colorful altarcito in the nave of the church on Alcatraz Avenue. There, John and his family join others who have passed on but survive in pictures, placed among bright paper flowers, sugar skulls, and candles, both real and LED. The altarcito was set up for All Souls Day and will remain in Saint Augustine throughout the month of November.
For Catholics, as well as members of other branches of Christianity, November sees the trinity of Hallowmas holidays: All Hallows Eve (or Halloween) on Oct. 31, All Saints Day on Nov. 1, and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.
In Catholicism, when a person dies, their soul does not automatically go to heaven, because a soul is not completely without sin. First, it spends time in purgatory. On All Souls Day, the living can pray for the dead and help them move on to the next world. Inspired by a Mexican parishioner, Saint Augustine adopted the altarcito tradition into its All Souls celebration in the last decade.
This year, All Souls fell on a Saturday, and turnout to Saint Augustine’s special mass of remembrance was slightly larger than during a normal week, according to Maureen Wikander. She’s been a parishioner of the church for more than 30 years, singing in the choir, helping the hungry in the church’s St. Vincent De Paul Society, and serving as a coordinator of the Art and Environment team, which is in charge of church decorations. In the days before Nov. 2, Wikander and her fellow parishioners hosted an altarcito decorating party, complete with Mexican food.
“I think it is kind of therapeutic for people to have their pictures and talk about who the person is,” Wikander says of the altarcito. “It kind of gives them connection to their past.”
At Saturday’s mass, parishioners were invited to share the names of their loved ones aloud as they lit candles, which glowed throughout the mass. There were also envelopes at the end of each pew. Church members can seal the names of the deceased inside, who will be prayed for in Saint Augustine for the rest of the month.
Father William Rosario led his congregation through the emotional service, promising his assembly that the souls of their loved ones are eternal, even if their physical selves are not.
“Our sisters and brothers who have fallen asleep in death are not dead, but alive in the lord,” Fr. William Rosario said in his sermon on Saturday. “And that is why as believers, we together say may they rest in peace, amen.”