Tess Dolan knelt in the front of the nearly full cathedral, a white shawl wrapped around her head, and a pillow, normally used to prop up an iPad, stuffed under her blue dress.

ThatMomentAnother girl playing the angel Gabriel – Tess’ part last year – spoke from a podium, letting her know of her baby’s impending birth.

“How shall this be since I have no husband?” Tess said into her headset.

It was her ninth year in the St. Luke’s Cathedral Christmas pageant and, finally, her turn to play Mary, who is believed to have been around Tess’ age – 14 – when she gave birth to Jesus. Other than that, the high school freshman doesn’t have much in common with her character – not that her own life has been ordinary.

Tess was born in Vietnam and adopted by American parents when she was 6 months old. They moved from Washington, D.C., to Cape Elizabeth when she was in first grade because they wanted her to grow up in New England, in a town where there was an emphasis on education and where having two dads wouldn’t be something she’d have to explain.

As soon as they got to Maine, they started looking for a congregation to join. They were less concerned with the religion than finding a place where there was a focus on community and service to others. They settled on St. Luke’s in Portland and have sat in the same pew with the same people nearly every Sunday since.


The first time Tess’ fathers dropped her off at Sunday school, they saw another little girl who looked at lot like her, with brown skin and black hair.

They soon learned that Maya, who was the same age as Tess, also was adopted from Vietnam – by her two mothers.

The girls became best friends and each other’s family became an extension of their own.

Maya played Mary in the pageant last year and, for the past five years, her mother, Sarah Dowling, has directed it.

Between a dress rehearsal Sunday morning and the 10 a.m. performance, the girls, both with braces on their teeth, sat next to each other in a pew in a smaller chapel at the back of the church, scrolling through their smartphones and showing each other the screens – the kind of down time that’s getting harder for Tess to come by.

Aside from church, where she serves as a torch bearer, and school, where physics is her favorite subject, Tess plays piano and flute and dives for the swim team. She likes to travel and has been to 13 countries. Her favorites are Spain, for its beaches, and Greece, because of all the street vendors, even though she knows they’re being friendly only because they want money.


She’s a self-described “foodie,” but doesn’t eat lobster. She plans to be a doctor someday – a surgeon, she thinks, “cardiothoracics, maybe,” she said.

“I think we hit the jackpot,” said her father, Steve Truncellito. His partner, Tom Dolan, agrees.

They’ve never had to punish Tess because, as far as they’re concerned, she’s never done anything wrong. The only rule in their house is to have fun.

As for her future, they just hope their daughter’s happy – and, if you ask Dolan, that she goes to Notre Dame as he did.

In the weeks before the pageant, where she had a solo singing “The First Noel,” they’ve also been warning her: Don’t mess it up, Dolan said with a smile.

On Sunday, Truncellito had been at the church since he brought Tess in for the dress rehearsal when Dolan joined him in the first pew, across the aisle from the cast, just before the service started.


“I get more nervous than she does,” Dolan said of his daughter’s performances. After all the recitals and sports games, getting up in front of an audience doesn’t faze Tess.

The pageant is nothing new either. She started as a sheep, then played an angel for several years before becoming one of the three kings, then Gabriel and, this year, Mary.

After her first scene, she and the boy playing Joseph, who’s in the grade below her at school, sneaked to the back of the church so they could walk together up the middle aisle, headed toward the stage, set as Bethlehem. They got turned away from two inns, then led to the makeshift manger. A baby doll that Maya played with as a kid appeared in a wooden cradle on the stage.

As Tess walked off stage to sit by the altar servers, Dowling whispered to her from the front pew.

“Tess, take the pillow out,” she said.

After the Angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, it was time for Tess’ solo. As she walked back on stage, both of her fathers’ phones popped up in front of them, and they watched her half in real life and half through their screens.

Surrounded by the shepherds, angels and animals, she sang the verses alone, her soprano effortlessly soaring through the high notes, with the rest of the cast joining her for the chorus.

Dolan didn’t cry as he thought he would, but he never stopped smiling either.


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