April 12, 2024

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

Gowns of grace, heaps of joy: rediscovering the beauty of Catholicism

Christina CapecchiJenna Wright has come a long way from being an NFL cheerleader to a first Communion catechist. Now, rather than sporting a skimpy outfit at the Super Bowl, she’s selling white gowns to second-grade girls and their families—and making it a memorable part of their sacramental preparation. It’s the perfect fit for the mother of five who’s rediscovered her faith.

Jenna was raised Catholic in Michigan. Again and again, the green-eyed blonde performed in the spotlight. As a teen, she trained in ballet and won a beauty pageant. In college, she studied broadcast journalism and became a professional cheerleader. She even cheered at a Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, her faith was crumbling. “I was quite thin, yet I had huge body issues and felt low in my self-worth,” she said. “I was surrounded by worldly things.”

At the end of her junior year of college, Jenna hit a breaking point. “I’m tired of this!” she felt. “Jesus was calling me back.”

She took part in the sacrament of reconciliation for the first time in years. Grace began to flood in.

When the Arizona Cardinals invited Jenna back the following season, she declined. “I don’t want to be dancing around in a bikini in front of hundreds of thousands of people,” she thought. “I’m done with that.”

The more she learned about her faith, the more her confidence surged.

Now 36, she and her husband Eric are raising five kids ages 1 to 10 on Daniel Island in Charleston, S.C., where they attend St. Clare of Assisi Parish.

Jenna delights in leading first Communion classes. “That age group is still so sweet and innocent, but they’re asking good questions and can understand bigger concepts,” she said. “And the sacraments! I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. Whenever you receive the Eucharist, it’s like you have a cup, and God is filling up your cup with grace. Sometimes it gets so full that it’s overflowing so you just have to share it with other people.”

As she taught, Jenna couldn’t help but notice a business opportunity. It started when her firstborn needed a first Communion dress. No local stores were selling them, and shopping online didn’t feel the same.

Other families began asking Jenna where to find dresses. She didn’t have an answer. One parent mentioned that they’d booked a trip to New York to shop at a boutique. The next year, another parent said they were headed to Rhode Island to buy a first Communion dress.

“I saw a hole in the market,” Jenna said.

Her thoughts quickly progressed. “There’s a need, especially down South, where there aren’t as many Catholics. But it’s seasonal—you don’t need a brick-and-mortar all year round. Someone’s got to start a pop-up

first Communion boutique. I guess that someone’s me.”

Last summer, Jenna officially launched Gowns of Grace. She sources all the dresses, culling from three designers, along with veils and suits for boys. Then she hosts a pop-up shop at a church. She packs everything up, carrying every size and style of dress. She makes it an experience for families to enjoy together, providing cookies and drinks, a religious craft, a photo booth and a keepsake gift.

The event functions as a fundraiser for the hosting church, which receives up to 25% of her sales. Jenna also sells her products online at gownsofgrace.com.

Parishes that promote it are given a code that gives them 10% back.

Jenna’s goal is to celebrate each child. “This is not just another dress you have to get,” she said. “This is really special.”

It works, creating a positive experience that underscores the importance of the sacrament—

faith-filled and fun. “Every single parent and grandparent who came thanked me and told me how lovely it was.”

These days, beauty fills Jenna’s life. She’s come so far since college. “I felt like Jesus stepped in and said, ‘Here’s a fork in the road, go the other way,’ ” she said. “I haven’t looked back.”

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.)

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