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Sister's collection has stamp of the season
By Joan Broz | Daily Herald Columnist

Sister DePaul Stava's collection includes many first-day issue Christmas stamps, which often are postmarked from locales with holiday-themed names. Centered at the top is the first religious Christmas stamp from 1966.


Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Stava has a trifold display depicting Christmas stamps from the 1970s.


Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Stava collects other commemorative and religious items, such as this coin honoring Pope John Paul II.


Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Sister DePaul Stava of Lisle collects stamps and items featuring stamp artwork, such as this Christmas stamp ornament.


Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Stamp designer Ward Brackett chose Santi Raphael's "The Niccolini Cowper Madonna" for the 1983 religious Christmas stamp. The stamps and reproduction are part of Stava's collection.


Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

The first religious Christmas stamp, issued in 1966, featured part of Hans Memling's 15th century piece "Madonna and Child with Angels." Stava displays a reproduction with a first-day issue stamp.


Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

A painting by R. Bode compliments the 1979 religious Christmas stamp designed by Bradbury Thompson using "Flight Into Egypt," a 15th century work by Gerard Davis. The signed work was commissioned by the Postal Commemorative Society.


Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

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Published: 12/8/2008 12:00 AM

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Sister DePaul Stava, who lives at the Sacred Heart Monastery in Lisle, is a philatelist. The soft-spoken Benedictine nun is practically effervescent when talking about her life-long interest in collecting stamps.

Each stamp to her is a lesson in art, customs, currency and history. She is enthusiastic, knowledgeable and organized with her extensive stamp collection, and excited to share some favorite Christmas stamps with readers.

The United States Postal Service began issuing holiday stamps in 1962 to remind the public to mail seasonal greeting cards early. The first stamp depicted an evergreen wreath and two lit candles at a cost of 4 cents.

The first Christmas stamp using religious art appeared four years later, in 1966, and cost 5 cents. It featured a close-up of the Blessed Mother and Baby Jesus from a Hans Memling 15th century painting, "Madonna and Child with Angels." The same painting was used the following year in a taller version.

This year, the United States Postal Service printed 1.9 billion holiday stamps, a U.S. postal service spokesman said.

The 2008 contemporary Christmas stamp highlights four wooden nutcrackers designed by artist Glenn Crider. Cider is one of only a few nutcracker makers who use the German style in hand-crafting each figure.

This year's religious stamp is the "Virgin and Child with the Young John the Baptist" by Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. The original artwork is housed at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Sister DePaul had a friend send her this year's first-day issue that compliments her focus on Madonna stamps. A first-day issue means the stamp is affixed to a special envelope called a cover. A distinctive postmark cancels the stamp at a designated post office only on the day the stamp debuts.

Postmarks are a small lesson in geography and a few holiday-named ones are Santa Claus and Bethlehem, Ind.; North Pole, Alaska, Colorado or New York; Christmas, Fla., Mich., or Christmas Valley, Ore.; Noel, Mo.; Holly, Mich., and Silver Bell, Ariz.

Stava began collecting stamps while a student at St. Joseph's Bohemian Orphanage in Lisle. A secretary in the school office kept a small box of stamps at her desk and allowed children to select a favorite as a small reward. Sister DePaul chose carefully and kept each in a special journal.

For a number of years, while Stava completed her studies and professed her vows as a religious nun, the small journal sat dormant. Then in 1954 when the Catholic Church celebrated the Marion Year, a number of stamps that depicted the Madonna re-energized her interest in stamps.

"After seeing all those stamps, I was excited all over again," Sister DePaul said.

This time, collecting first-day issue stamps became her priority. Some first-day issues have both the religious and the traditional stamp for the year together on a single cover. Often complementary artwork called a cachet is included. Each is a lovely piece of art.

To help her collection grow, Stava attended stamp shows early on to find many initial pieces in her collection. She finds the postage-sized images eye-catching and sprinkles her conversation about them with descriptive words such as "pretty," "beautiful" and "unique."

Today, her collection has at least 1,000 first-day issues along with a number of art works, pins, coins and ornaments bearing Madonna stamp images. Some of her cachets are delicately hand-painted on squares of silk, while others are pencil drawn. Some FDIs may have an embedded coin. The total collection has a diversity of jewel-like colors, rich details and interesting stories.

In 1973, a holiday stamp featured a Madonna and Child called the "Small Cowper Madonna" based on a painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Ten years later in 1983, a Raphael painting was used again from the same museum to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Raphael's birth. "The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna" reflects a trend toward Renaissance masterpieces.

In 1977, the series sidestepped the trend to select a stamp that featured George Washington praying at Valley Forge.

Sister DePaul's favorite cachets are the work of artist Doris Gold. Between 1977 and 1983, Gold issued cachets for each Christmas stamp. Since then her drawings celebrate Christmas in other countries to compliment the year's stamp choice. For 2008, Ethiopia is highlighted. Each cover is numbered, and Stava feels lucky to have some in her collection including numbers 310 of 319 and 115 of 150.

The first four-in-one issue stamp set was printed in 1964 with a traditional poinsettia, a branch of mistletoe, a sprig of holly and a pine twig in red and greens against a white background. Each individual stamp has its own design and together is a set.

Sister DePaul has all three ornate holly filigree ornaments issued by the postal service from 1989 to 1991. Each ornament contains that year's artistic Christmas stamp.

Stava's hobby keeps expanding in new directions. In past years, she used her distinctive collection to design Christmas cards she sends to friends and family.

Internet sites estimate that philately is becoming one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and collecting Christmas holiday stamps is all the rage. Talking to Sister DePaul Stava will inspire anyone to collect stamps - if even just a little box full of favorites.

• Joan Broz writes about Lisle. E-mail her at