By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
At St. Augustine of Hippo’s parish school of religion program, parents, church and catechists don’t operate separately, they are woven together to form a strong connection between children and their Catholic faith.
Parents support the catechists through assignments that promote family religious education at home. Catechists support the church by focusing on children’s participation in Mass and their service to their parish. The church supports both, subsidizing the cost of the program and holding regular youth Masses that emphasize the importance of nurturing young worshipers.
Together, “We’re family – a church family,” says Eleanor Gregory, coordinator of religious education for the East St. Louis parish. She’s been a part of St. Augustine PSR for 35 years, and has taught generations of parishioners.
“You see that young lady there?” she says, pointing to a teenager. “I remember when she was born. I remember her First Communion.”
The St. Augustine program is small – 33 children are enrolled this year in grades pre-K through 8, with another nine participating in the church youth group — but its reach is wide. Families come from as far away as O’Fallon, Fairview Heights and even St. Louis, says catechist Teresa Barbier.
Gloria Lane understands the attraction of the program. She and her husband Arthur live in Glen Carbon, but bring their three children to St. Augustine. “My husband was raised in this church,” she says.
Lane sees the twice-monthly classes as a continuation of the home religious schooling she and her husband provide.
“They’re teaching them to be wholesome and well-behaved,” she says. “You have to have God in your life to know how to act, and you need that at a young age. They’re teaching them everything they need so they can go forward in Christ.”
Students at St. Augustine PSR are all part of “Team J,” or “Team Jesus,” Barbier says. They gather in small, multi-grade classes that are intensely focused on helping children participate in the Mass.They use handouts that explain the weekly readings for different age levels. Since the children don’t meet every week, the following week’s handouts are sent home for kids to work on with their parents or grandparents.
“I always say, pick a day, and have an hour of prayer,” Gregory says. “Combine working on homework with family time. My grandchildren do it on a Saturday afternoon.”
The worksheets go home in manila envelopes that must be signed by the parent upon return to class.
Second-graders preparing for their First Holy Eucharist and First Reconciliation are grouped with third-graders who can help in preparation for the sacraments, Gregory says.
Confirmation preparation takes place over three years, beginning in sixth grade, she says. “We wanted to avoid the shock of that transition to confirmation preparation,” she says.
In addition to individual service hours, her confirmation classes also decide on a group service event. One class spent a day working with elders at a nursing home; another volunteered at Cosgrove’s Kitchen for Thanksgiving.
And the program emphasizes helping out at church. About four times a year, there is a special Saturday children’s Mass at St. Augustine at which PSR students serve as lectors, altar servers, choir members and even ushers.
The children’s Mass was instituted a few years ago, when classes were moved from Saturdays to Sundays.
“The parents seem to really like it,” Gregory says of the changes.
Lane believes the program has helped her children – ninth-grader Zaria, third-grader Arthur Jr. and second-grader James – become leaders.
“My middle child participates in the choir and is an altar server,” she says. “My daughter is an altar server, and today she’s back in the classroom; she likes to help the teachers.”
Lane notes that the PSR program is kept affordable for families. Parishioners are invited to participate in fundraisers that help defray the costs of the program.
Amber Johnson of Belleville, whose son Kyle is in the second- and third-grade class, says he enjoys it because the teachers will answer his many questions. “He’s always been interested in the Lord, and he likes to ask questions,” she says.
On a recent Sunday, small groups of children were gathered in different classrooms in the church hall. Across the street in the rectory, a group of teens gathered around a table, watching videos about confirmation and enjoying donuts. A small votive candle lit the darkened room.
Gregory says the new confirmation teacher, Carol Davis, is enthusiastic and committed.
“She told me she’s doing all the assignments that she gives the students – she’s going through it with them and learning more along the way,” Gregory says of Davis. “One of our students knew he couldn’t make it to class this week, so she met with him at the library on Thursday to work with him. She’s so gung-ho. I’m so glad they’re getting this kind of preparation.”
Gregory says the warmth and family spirit of the program is reflected back to them by the students. She notes that when her husband died, she missed some classes. When she returned, “They all crowded around me, saying ‘Mrs. Gregory, we’re so sorry,’ and ‘Mrs. Gregory, we missed you.’ Even some of the teenagers. That kind of warmth is what we instill in them.”