Modell family celebrates Christmas with St. Vincent Villa children

For generations of Maryland residents, the Modell family will always be known for bringing the National Football League back to Baltimore.

But to a group of children at St. Vincent Villa in Timonium whose lives are affected by far more than football, the Modells will be remembered for their role in transforming the facility's gymnasium into the most festive of holiday settings for their annual Christmas party.

"These young people face grave difficulties in their lives," said David Modell the son of former Ravens' owner Art Modell. "Isn't it nice when they can have a day to celebrate, have fun and lift their spirits?"

Saturday was the fifth incarnation of family's holiday celebration for the residents of St. Vincent Villa, a facility run by Catholic Charities that serves children with emotional and behavioral problems stemming from mental health conditions. St. Vincent's Villa also helps children suffering from abuse and neglect.

And while the decorations for the party have gotten more extravagant each year — organizers estimated that 150 Christmas trees filled the gymnasium Saturday — this year's celebration was tinged with sorrow.

Art Modell's wife, Pat, who was a driving force behind the party, died in October, leaving the family's patriarch, son David and daughter-in-law Michel—as well as over 120 volunteers—to carry on a tradition that was so important to her.

Ezra Buchdahl, administrator of St. Vincent Villa, said he was a little concerned, but ultimately was not surprised that this year's party plans were carried out after her death.

"The Modells have been so generous," he said. "She cared so much about the kids and this place, and we're grateful to the family for continuing the tradition that she started."

At the event, Art Modell said it was "very tough" to be there without his wife, but the family never considered abandoning an event that was his wife's "pride and joy."

"She was dedicated to the welfare of children," Modell said.

The party was the brainchild of Pat Modell and her friend, Jake Boone, who decorated the gym for a celebration after the Modell's anniversary Mass at St. Vincent Villa in 2007.

They asked officials what was done around Christmastime, and were told that there was only one tree in the building.

"I said, 'We've got to do more than that,' " Boone recalled.

That first year, they had 17 trees in the gymnasium. This year, of the 150 trees, some are as small as 8 inches while others tower as high as 15 feet.

"It's just fantastic," Boone said. "The energy here is what Christmas is all about."

In between enjoying the ice cream bar and decorating gingerbread men and Christmas stockings, children bounded between the trees and marveled at the scale of it all.

Although children at St. Vincent Villa cannot be identified while under the protection of the state, one resident, a 13-year-old boy, grinned from ear-to-ear as he enjoyed an ice cream party.

He said the ice cream buffet and admiring the Christmas trees were his favorite part of the celebration, and noted that there were more Christmas trees in the gym than he'd ever seen before.

"Before this, all I've ever seen is one," he said.

Michele Green, 37 of Odenton, who was visiting her son at St. Vincent Villa, said it was a "great feeling" knowing that people were thinking about the children.

"Some of these kids have nobody," she said. "It can give them a positive belief that people care about them."

Green said the setting was "very beautiful" for a holiday party, and that organizers "went way beyond what they could have done" (at home).

Michel Modell, David's wife, couldn't help but notice how excited the children were by the whole afternoon—a tonic of sorts for a family embarking on its first holiday season without its matriarch.

"Patty was a huge personality, so it's noticeable that she's not around anymore," she said. "When we walked in today, I could see her touch on everything. It's nice to be reminded that when you just think of someone, they're with you all the time."

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