by Moira Cullings
WILLIAMSBURG — It only happens once.
First Communion is a special moment for young Catholics — and Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg doesn’t want the excitement surrounding the sacrament to fade easily.
This past April, the ranch launched its first Emmaus Eucharistic Amazement retreat to help the young Catholics understand Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.
“We want to help them experience the joy of eucharistic amazement at a young age so that fulfillment that comes from encountering him fills their hearts early on,” said Gregory Wellnitz, director of Prairie Star.
Prairie Star will offer its Emmaus retreat throughout the upcoming school year for second, third and fourth graders — an experience crafted to help them build a relationship with Christ in the Eucharist.
The road to Emmaus
Wellnitz believes a first Communion retreat can have a lasting impact on young people who have received or are preparing to receive the sacrament.
“We work with the knowledge that about eighty-nine percent of Catholics who remain faithful in the church after college can identify a particular event or experience that triggered that faith commitment,” he said.
“And we want to make sure that those events and experiences are crafted and available to all of our parishes and schools here at Prairie Star,” he added.
The idea for the theme “Emmaus” was initially drawn from the inspiration of Msgr. Thomas Tank.
“At the very beginning of Prairie Star Ranch,” said Wellnitz, “Father Tom Tank had a desire to make sure that the programming and facility had a eucharistic focus.
“The very first chapel here at Prairie Star was titled the Emmaus Chapel.”
The chapel name, inspired by the encounter of the disciples with Christ on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel, matched the purpose of the retreat.
To top it off, said Wellnitz, the timing of the national Eucharistic Revival, which kicked off this past June, made the idea even more relevant.
Grace Malinee, retreat team missionary at Prairie Star, was excited to help write the retreat’s curriculum.
“I reached out to friends of mine that are DREs or do faith formation at different parishes to get ideas,” she said.
The Prairie Star team also talked with schoolteachers who regularly prepare students for the sacrament.
Malinee said preparation in the classroom is critical, but a daylong retreat in a different environment can offer even more.
“What we’re hoping is to give them time to step away and remove themselves from those minute details and those practicalities,” she said, like picking out a first Communion outfit.
“We really want them to know that the Eucharist is a person, and that person is Jesus, and Jesus desires to enter into very deep friendship with you,” she continued.
That message is conveyed during the retreat in ways accessible to young minds through games, skits, contemplation and reflection.
Students also journey around the ranch searching for saint icons, which include letters from each saint about their relationship with Jesus.
They ultimately end up at the chapel for eucharistic adoration.
“We have beautiful cloths that drape off of our altar,” said Malinee. “The kids can come forward to those cloths and hold them, as if they’re touching Jesus’ cloak.”
Talk of the town
Sacred Heart School in Ottawa was one of the first groups to attend the Emmaus retreat in April.
Second grade teacher Megan Staley said the retreat was beyond what she anticipated for her students, who were preparing for first Communion.
“One of my kids’ favorite things was when the team retold the story of the road to Emmaus,” she said. “They were talking about it for weeks.”
Staley’s class was particularly impacted by eucharistic adoration and being able to touch the cloths that draped from the altar.
“This helped make it real for my kids,” she said. “It was beautiful for me, as their teacher, to see my students really connect with Jesus in such a real and personal way.”
Holy Trinity School in Paola was also among the first to participate in Emmaus, and principal Michelle Gavin was impressed.
“The students learn the basics in the classroom,” she said, “but the Emmaus retreat offered an amazing experience that brought their knowledge to life.”
The lasting impact was clear.
“The following week at Mass, Father Joe [Sellas] talked about one of the saints they had met on the retreat,” said Gavin. “You should have seen their excitement as they smiled and poked each other as they recognized the saint.
“On their way out of Mass, they were telling their schoolmates all about it. It was beautiful.”