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Preschool student Declan Vaughn set up an altar in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Atrium at St. Gerard Majella in Kirkwood. Catechesis of the God Shepherd is a religious program designed to nurture children in their faith and to develop a relationship with the Lord.
Preschool student Declan Vaughn set up an altar in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Atrium at St. Gerard Majella in Kirkwood. Catechesis of the God Shepherd is a religious program designed to nurture children in their faith and to develop a relationship with the Lord.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

ANNUAL CATHOLIC APPEAL | ‘Encounter with Christ’

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is designed to nurture children in their faith and to develop a relationship with the Lord

The Annual Catholic Appeal pledge drive, originally scheduled to take place in most parishes April 18-19, April 25-26 and May 2-3, has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pledge drive will be held in parishes at a later date. Parishioners may still donate to the Appeal online at aca.archstl.org


Second-graders sat in a semi-circle playing with several small peg dolls of the Holy Family as Barb Frein read a story about the Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s trek to Egypt to escape King Herod’s slaughter of innocent children.

As they played with the figures spread out on a small rug, they answered Barb’s questions about what happened in the story. What did Joseph do after the angel came and spoke with him? Did Joseph do what he was told? Imagine trying to walk 300 miles — Joseph was very obedient, wasn’t he?

The students at St. Gerard Majella School in Kirkwood were not in a traditional classroom setting, but rather an atrium — the centerpiece of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a religious program designed to nurture children in their faith and to develop a relationship with the Lord. As the second-graders learned about the flight to Egypt, several other students in the atrium played with small figures as they learned about other stories from Scripture, while others sat at a long table having a discussion over a worksheet.

Lainey Lorenz and Anna Loft, preschool students at St. Gerard Majella School in Kirkwood, played with a manger scene at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Through Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, children have direct interactions with materials specially prepared for students by catechists and community that help them learn about the Catholic faith.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston
“There’s such a hunger for this, and parents and educators are seeing the benefits,” said catechist Ann Eilermann. “It’s experiential and offers them an encounter with Christ on a deeper level.”

The Montessori-based religious program is open to children ages 3-12. The atrium is considered a sacred space for children to nurture a personal relationship with God and to participate more fully in the Mass. Children have direct interactions with materials specially prepared for students by catechists and the community, such as doll-sized priest vestments, articles used for the Mass and maps and atlases for exploring scriptural history. Lessons are centered on prayer, the kingdom of God parables, the altar and parts of the Mass, the geography of Israel, Jesus’ infancy narratives, the paschal mystery, baptism and Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Barb said she’s amazed at how much the children learn in this setting. “It’s all Scripture-based, and this helps them to go a little deeper into that,” she said. Barb is in her fourth year as a catechist, having previously worked as a substitute teacher in the preschool. She would bring her preschoolers to the atrium and noticed how they quieted themselves and got right to exploring their lessons. “It’s a gift teaching these children,” she added.

St. Gerard Majella is in its ninth year of offering the program, reaching students in preschool through sixth grade. An after-school program is popular among families from other parishes and homeschooling families. Currently, there are about about two dozen known atria in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, according to the archdiocesean Office of Catholic Education and Formation.

Preschool student Kristina Passanise put tiny chasubles on mannequins.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston
The Education Office this July will launch a yearlong training program for those seeking to become catechists with the program. A grant from the Annual Catholic Appeal provides support in getting the training program off the ground. The first class, which will offer a part of the the first level of training, is full and there is a waiting list.

Jill Burkett, a regional director with the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education and formation, noted that the response shows there has been a strong interest in the program, and the support of the appeal makes the training more accessible to parishes and schools. “We’re excited to see how it will grow,” she said.

Ann Eilermann and another mom, Kara Lydon, brought the program to St. Gerard in 2010. After undergoing the training program, they started with parish families, teaching children ages 3-6. A few years later, they integrated it into the school. The atrium is considered supplemental to the school’s religion curriculum, she added.

Ann shared a story of a school family whose 4-year-old attended the atrium. It made such an impact on him that the family, who was not Catholic, began attending church and are now active parishioners. She spoke of another student whose mother had passed away; the student found a gift in the quiet environment of the atrium.

“The girl told me she loved the atrium, because she gets to be with her mom,” she said. “She liked the gift of quiet, silence and peace. This is holy ground.”

How to donate

The financial goal of the 2020 Annual Catholic Appeal is $14.5 million. Approximately 91 cents of every dollar raised goes back into the community in the form of direct services. The Annual Catholic Appeal pledge drive, originally scheduled to take place in most parishes April 18-19, April 25-26 and May 2-3, has been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pledge drive will be held in parishes at a later date. Parishioners may still donate to the Appeal online at aca.archstl.org

To learn more about the Annual Catholic Appeal, visit aca.archstl.org.

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