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St. Louis University High School principal Father Matt Stewart, SJ, prayed over student Jack Hieken during Hieken’s confirmation April 25 at St. Louis University High School. William Rainey and Connor McCoy, left of Hieken, were also among the seven students received into the Church.
St. Louis University High School principal Father Matt Stewart, SJ, prayed over student Jack Hieken during Hieken’s confirmation April 25 at St. Louis University High School. William Rainey and Connor McCoy, left of Hieken, were also among the seven students received into the Church.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

New Christian initiation efforts open path to the sacraments for students at St. Louis University High, St. Dominic

Joe Coovert’s first semester of theology class at St. Louis University High School had a life-changing impact.

“My teacher talked a lot about real-life experiences with his Catholic faith, and it really inspired me,” said Joe, who was baptized in the Episcopal Church. “I’ve been interested in (Catholicism) for a long time, but there wasn’t really a way for me to take action about it. And then this year, there was.”

Father Matt Stewart, SJ, principal of SLUH, confirmed student Zion Spencer at a school Mass on April 25.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
For the first time, SLUH this year offered in-school Christian initiation formation for students who wished to become Catholic. On April 25, seven students were welcomed into the Church during an all-school Mass of Praise and Thanksgiving.

“One blessing for which we should all be grateful is the gift that Jackson, Joe, Jack, Travis, Connor, Will and Zion give us today, the seven members of our community who have heard the voice of the Lord calling them to enter the Church through the sacraments of initiation that we will celebrate,” SLUH principal Father Matthew Stewart, SJ, said during his homily. “Each one of them has felt a stirring in their hearts. And more importantly, and more impressively, they have listened to it and chosen to respond. They are models for each of us to follow, signs of the activity of the living God present in our school.”

Kneeling in a shallow pool set up for the occasion, freshman Jack Hieken smiled as Father Stewart poured water over his head one, two, three times, baptizing him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Jack grew up without much formal religion but was inspired by his younger brother, who became Catholic last year after entering Chaminade College Preparatory School.

“That kind of inspired me to do it, but I didn’t really have a way,” Jack said. “And then I found out about RCIA through one of my friends here.”

St. Louis University High School student Connor McCoy was baptized by Father Matt Stewart, SJ, principal of SLUH, during a school Mass on April 25.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
His friends at SLUH have been “super, super supportive,” he said, adding that a friend had gifted him a Rosary earlier that morning. The sense of community was one of the main things that attracted him to the Church, he said: “Everyone’s very connected, and everyone’s always there for each other.”

The Christian initiation program was developed to make sacramental formation easily accessible for students within that familiar school community, said Justin Kelley, SJ, Jesuit regent and SLUH teacher.

“In years past, what we’ve had to do is say, ‘OK, what’s your zip code?’ and then we’ll assign you to the nearest parish,” Kelley said. “But what I sensed is their understanding of the Church, their Catholic world, is St. Louis University High. The Catholics they know, the Catholics they interact with, what they know about Catholicism, is the school … so this is where they should be fostered and nourished in that desire.”

So with the approval of Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski and help from Joe Milner, director of the archdiocesan Office of Christian Initiation, Kelley formed a Christian initiation group. The group met once a

St. Louis University High School students prayed with Justin Kelley, SJ, a Jesuit regent and SLUH teacher, and theology teacher Richard Wehner (blue sweatshirt) during an in-school Christian initiation gathering March 25 at the high school.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
week during Activity Period to discuss the tenets of the faith, adding to what the students already learned in school theology courses.

The sessions were also a chance for students to ask practical questions about the Church. During a Q&A session on the Monday of Holy Week, the conversation ranged from untangling the Triduum to the purpose of genuflecting to navigating conversations with family members who don’t understand your decision to be baptized.

Each student chose a faculty or staff member to be his sponsor, “not only for checking in and answering questions, but also modeling prayer, going to Mass with them, being there for them along the process,” Kelley said. Sponsors also helped their students connect with a parish to regularly attend Mass and get involved after receiving their sacraments.

For senior Zion Spencer, regular meetings with his sponsor, theology teacher Robert Garavaglia, helped give him ideas of how to live his faith in the real world.

“We have personal conversations about family and stuff like that, and how to get closer to God. He’s helped me a lot,” Zion said, adding that Garavaglia gave him his first Rosary, some spiritual reading and helped get him connected to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, where he now attends Mass. “He’s helped me go on the right path.”

Travis Luth was drawn to the Catholic faith after experiencing eucharistic adoration at SLUH, he said.

“I had a moment where I just felt washed over and lifted up,” said the freshman, who was baptized Presbyterian. That experience with Jesus in the Eucharist “was the start of everything. I love going to adoration now. It’s one of my favorite things to do.”

In the weeks leading up to his first Communion and confirmation, “a lot of people told me that they’re praying for me, which made me really happy that I’m being supported,” he said.

St. Louis University High School student William Rainey received gifts, including a Bible and saint medal, from his sponsor and godfather, SLUH biology teacher Christopher Stahl, following a school Mass on April 25 at St. Louis University High School in St. Louis. Rainey received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and first Communion during the Mass.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
Junior Connor McCoy was raised without any religion. He became interested in the faith through hearing his classmates talk about it — even simple things like planning their social activities around Mass on Sunday — and witnessing his teachers, “some of the smartest people I’ve ever known,” make daily Mass a priority.

“Since freshman year, joining the SLUH community, it was something I was interested in,” Connor said. “And this year in particular, that next step felt right.”

Sophomore theology teacher Richard Wehner helped Kelley lead the Christian initiation sessions and served as Joe Coovert’s sponsor. He wiped away tears as Joe was anointed with chrism and sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

“These guys validate my faith. They validate the 50 years I’ve been in Catholic education, teaching religion,” Wehner said. “…I’ll remember this forever.”

SLUH’s Christian initiation program is one way that the school is embracing new methods of evangelization in the wake of All Things New, Wehner said. And it’s inspired him to offer more intentional invitations to his students.

“At the end of every class this year, I am going to invite them to think about — if they want to become Catholic, I will be there with you. I will walk every step of the way with you,” he said.

St. Dominic High School

At St. Dominic High School in O’Fallon, similar conversations were taking place behind the scenes for years.

When Olivia Huddleston started her freshman year, one of the first things she noticed was the amount of prayer taking place during the school day. Students begin every morning with an all-school prayer. There are also prayer opportunities during class time and again at the end of the day. And of course, there’s Mass.

Twelve students and faculty from a variety of backgrounds were received into the Church at an all-school Mass at St. Dominic on April 3. Pictured are front row, from left, students Olivia Huddleston, Lulu Hawkins, Gracie Black, Ava Schwane and Mia Kate Music; and back row from left, science teacher Rebecca McDonald, art teacher Taylor Linville, students McKenzie Ashurst, Hunter Trigg, Timothy Denison and Harrison Wurdack, assistant principal of curriculum and instruction Nikki Schuler, and vice president of mission and identity Father Patrick Russell.
Photo Credits: Provided photo by Alyssa Kochin | St. Dominic
Coming from a public school, Olivia was drawn to the community of faith, and her school friends took notice. They invited her to Mass and encouraged her at school. Olivia knew the next step was to look into Christian initiation classes, but St. Dominic didn’t offer it.

“It was really like — I had to go to a parish and do that,” she recalled. “And for me, I was like, this is really scary.”

Fast forward two years to the beginning of Olivia’s junior year, when in September, she received an email from Father Patrick Russell, the school’s vice president of mission and identity.

“He was like, anybody who’s interested in joining RCIA, or if you need any of the sacraments, fill out this Google form,” she said. “And I said, ‘Okay, we’ll just go and see how it is.’”

Father Russell and others at St. Dominic for several years had been talking about what it would take to build a Christian initiation formation program at the school. For the most part, students would approach Father Russell asking to receive the sacraments after an impactful experience at a retreat or through learning about the faith in a theology class.

“Traditionally, the response has been, ‘Great, I’m really excited for you. You have to talk to Father so-and-so at wherever your home parish is, based off of geography,’” he said. “And the success rate was just really low for that. We began to dream and envision what could it look like to start offering a program in-house.”

Twelve students and faculty of a variety of backgrounds — including Olivia — were received into the Church at an all-school Mass at St. Dominic on April 3. Some had never been baptized and were interested in receiving all of the sacraments; others had been baptized and received their first Communion, but hadn’t taken steps to be confirmed in the Church.

Theology teacher Jack Hogan described the classroom experience as a fertile ground to plant seeds with students. He dives deeper into the sacraments in his classes, which often prompts questions from students who want to know more.

“As a teacher, you’re wondering, what sticks? What are the kids getting out of this?” he said. “Seeing them learn about these sacraments and say, ‘Now that I know what this is, I want that,’ it’s a real thing. It’s not just another step in their life that their parents are having them do or that all of their classmates are doing. They’re making a real, tangible decision.”

Two weeks after her first RCIA class, Olivia attended a Kairos retreat with her classmates. The experience affirmed her decision to enter into full communion with the Church.

“That was life-changing,” she said. “Now I realize what God was trying to do and the path I needed to be on. It’s been a lot of time in prayer, making sure this is 100 percent what I wanted to do with my life.”

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