By Paul McMullen
PARKTON – The second-graders in the religious education program at Our Lady of Grace Parish have been briefed on their upcoming reconciliation and first Eucharist, but the teaching team of Kim Elser and Jennifer Jones did not supply advance notice of a special visitor Oct. 27.
“How old were you at your baptism?” Archbishop William E. Lori asked the students.
“Seventeen weeks,” one child answered.
“What a good memory you have,” he responded.
“No,” the child shot back, “my mom told me.”
That example of the trust we place in our first teachers underscored the archbishop’s initial visit to a parish religious education program in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
He had joined Our Lady of Grace School for its first day of class Aug. 26. Returning to celebrate his first Mass at the parish, the archbishop accepted an invitation from its pastor to spend time with its religious education students.
“Every parish I have been assigned to has had a Catholic school,” Father Sam Young said, “but as a pastor I recognize the importance of those who choose to participate in our faith formation.”
As does his parish, which has 37 catechists and seven substitutes directing 308 children, from kindergartners to 10th-graders preparing for confirmation. In a parish with approximately 900 families, to what does Father Young attribute such strong numbers?
“All of our catechists,” Father Young said, “revert to their own experience. ‘Someone gave to me, now I want to give back.’ It’s a wonderful thing.”
He also referenced continuing the spirit instilled by his predecessor; pastor emeritus Father Nicholas P. Amato.
“It’s not The Lady of Grace,” Father Young said. “It’s Our Lady of Grace.”
Elser, the second-grade teacher, takes that to heart.
She taught in the religious education program at St. Joseph, Cockeysville, and continued doing so after she and her husband, Troy, moved to Our Lady of Grace in 2004.
“I feel so blessed that I get to share my faith, nurture the seed we plant when we baptize our children,” said Elser, the mother of three. “The one thing that runs through my class, no matter the grade level or topic, is faith. Have faith that God loves you, no matter what.”
In Elser’s case, the “no matter what” was the death of her mother in April 2010, after an eight-year ordeal with breast cancer.
“Faith, that’s the cement you can hold onto,” she said. “God is always there … When the kids have questions that I don’t know how to answer, God helps me through.”
The parish’s catechists don’t have to be adults, just confirmed.
Rachel Overtoom took that sacrament at 15, and the next year took charge of the parish’s second-graders. Now 22, the recent graduate of Towson University is employed by Baltimore County, teaching third grade at Glyndon Elementary, with a nod to her Our Lady of Grace experience.
“I began as a Sunday School assistant at 11, helping Trish Wetzelberger,” Overtoom said. “Being in her classroom, learning from her, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. When I began student teaching, I could recognize, ‘OK, this needs to be fixed.’ I took what I learned here and implemented it in my classroom.”
Barbara Federici’s fourth-grade class impressed Archbishop Lori with their knowledge of the church calendar. He capped his tour in the parish hall, the Manor at Gunpowder Falls, where Dr. Jack Buchner, pastoral associate for faith formation, discussed with parents the sacrament of reconciliation.
“Thank you for taking the faith formation of your children so seriously,” the archbishop said. “Side by side, we work together, so our young people will know the Lord and share in the life of the church. It’s hard to be a parent today, there are so many diversions. I just want to thank you.”