by Katie Hyde
EMPORIA — It’s 8:45 a.m. at Sacred Heart Parish here and most grade-schoolers in this east-central Kansas town are still in bed, soaking up every precious hour of summer break.
Not these kids. Despite the early hour, Sacred Heart’s parish hall is full of 175 youngsters, ranging from kindergartners to eighth-graders, ready to learn.
Deacon Mark Ostrowski, who looks much more awake than most of the students, stands in front of the crowd, leading them in a rendition of “Rise and Shine.”
“Would you like to sing?” he asks the group excitedly.
“Yeah!” they yell.
“Let’s stand up!”
Halfhearted groans are their first response, but the kids slowly rise out of their chairs. With a bit of encouragement, they’re loudly singing minutes later.
These students are participants in Sacred Heart’s intensive summer religious education program. The program, which began eight years ago in the parish, squeezes a year’s worth of religious education for public school students into two weeks, offering a consistent, challenging, and fun alternative to the traditional weekly class paradigm of most Catholic parishes.
“The advantage is that children are fresh in the morning,” said director of religious education Linda DeDonder. “They haven’t been in school all day, and their school days are so jam-packed. They’re a little more receptive here.”
While most religious education programs are held on Wednesday evenings during the school year, Sacred Heart holds its intensive program during the summer. Classes meet for three hours a day for two weeks. Especially for kids and parents who are busy during the school year with homework,
sports, and other commitments, this program works well.
“It’s much easier to get kids here for two weeks in the summer than compete with all of their other activities during the year,” said Terri Sturm, a catechist with the program.
Despite the different time format, the Sacred Heart program works much like other religious education programs. Students are divided into classes where they receive age-appropriate instruction on everything from the Real Presence to the Catholic Church’s teaching on forgiveness.
But there are a few add-ons for older students. The eighth-graders go on field trips to St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison and to the Sisters of Charity in Leavenworth, for example, to see how men and women religious live in community.
The program also now teaches seventh- and eighth-graders theology of the body — the church’s teaching on love, sexuality, and marriage — rather than church history, a change that was made recently.
Amy Scheller, who has taught catechesis at the summer program since its inception, believes the move to teaching more relevant theology is important, especially for older students.
“We used to teach the history of the church for seventh- and eighth- graders,” Scheller said. “But there was so much vocabulary to learn, we didn’t have time to connect the faith elements. With this program, it connects the kids in such a relevant way.”
“It’s a curriculum that allows us to answer what it means to be a Catholic middle-schooler in 21st-century America,” she added.
According to DeDonder, Sacred Heart’s way of teaching religious education has been a huge success. In fact, the program is so popular at Sacred Heart that it is spreading to other parishes within the archdiocese, including Corpus Christi in Lawrence, which got the idea from DeDonder.
Most importantly, DeDonder says, the students have responded well to the two-week format, including Sydney Spellman, a seventh-grader at Emporia Middle School and a student in Scheller’s theology of the body class.
“You learn about where we came from,” Spellman said. “It has given me a better appreciation for the past.”