Isaac Mergenthaler’s religion class started with a dozen little squishy animals lined up in front of his workbook.
His teacher Clare Evertowski paused: “Would you like to do something else tonight rather than the workbook?” she asked.
“How about we play a game?” Isaac suggested.
Evertowski’s eyes lit up as she shuffled through a collection of poster boards featuring hand-drawn games. She pulled out one with two envelopes affixed to it, each one with a happy face or sad face next to it. She handed her student a stack of laminated cards showing different behaviors. The goal of the game was to determine which behaviors make God happy and which ones make Him sad.
With the help of his animal friends, Isaac correctly identified the scenes: helping a friend (happy), making fun of somebody (sad), taking something without asking (sad) and taking turns (happy).
Through a one-on-one, hands-on approach, Evertowski has taught parish school of religion classes for children with special needs for more than four decades in west St. Louis County. The 83-year-old has taught 60 students with disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, blindness and cerebral palsy.
Evertowski firmly believes in meeting each of her students where they are. With a gentle demeanor, her approach comes through her handmade games, creative visuals and conversations. She said she sees it as her duty to help children grow in their knowledge and love for the Catholic faith.
“They need to know as much as the other kids,” Evertowski said. “If they don’t make it to heaven, then we’re all in trouble.”
Evertowski began teaching PSR classes in 1979 at St. Joseph Parish in Manchester and later added teaching at Sacred Heart Parish in Valley Park. Sacred Heart’s pastor at the time, Father Robert “Rosy” Rosebrough, had heard about the work she was doing at St. Joseph and asked Evertowski if she would also teach their students.
Evertowski and her late husband, Robert, had a son with Down syndrome. Bobby died at the age of 19 in 1985 from bone cancer. The two also have a daughter, Mary Jo Leath, who helps transport her mom to PSR lessons.
Leath described her mother’s nurturing nature growing up. She was 10 when her brother died, but recalled from an early age how faith was always an important aspect of family life. The Evertowski children attended Catholic schools, including Bobby, who went to special education classes at Sacred Heart School in Florissant. Church attendance was always an important component of their upbringing, too.
“She is like a mom and a grandma to everyone,” she said. “It’s just a nurturing ability that she’s got that’s very easygoing. I think that is attractive to the students and their parents.”
Evertowski receives just as much from the students as they do from her, Leath observed. “She gets so much fulfilment from the kids that she teaches — they bounce back and forth off of each other,” she said.
Leath recalled a moment when her mom was having a bad day. Her husband of 49 years had passed away in early 2022, and Evertowski expressed one day how she was feeling in a funk. After teaching PSR that evening, Evertowski told her daughter: “Well, I’m out of my funk!”
“Teaching these kids brings such joy to her life,” Leath said, “that they did more for her that day than I think she did for them.”
One of Evertowski’s most important tasks is guiding her students through the sacraments: first reconciliation, first Communion and confirmation. Some of that preparation involves talking with parents to assess the child’s readiness, as well as setting goals for what she’d like each student to accomplish during their time in class.
Hannah Henke was a student of Evertowski’s years ago. The now 26-year-old, who was born with Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, has limited verbal communication. Her mother, Mary Henke, noted that the lessons her daughter learned at PSR have had an enduring effect.
The Henkes wanted Hannah to receive the sacraments, but Mary Henke was worried about how their daughter would handle a typical classroom setting. She could see through her daughter’s expressions that she was absorbing quite a bit from her time with Evertowski.
“The beautiful thing about Clare is she sees what we see” in their daughter, Mary Henke said. “Hannah can’t communicate as well, but Clare’s approach has always been, don’t ever give up on any of these kids — you don’t know what they’re taking away from it. They’re God’s children.”
Through her PSR education, Hannah learned about the concept of prayers, including praying for others and praying at certain times of the day, such as bedtime. At Mass, she participates in some of the responses, her mother said. And singing is one of her gifts, as evidenced through her singing the “Alleluia.”
Karen Clark’s son, Will, is a seventh-grader who began lessons with “Miss Clare” last year. After several years in a typical PSR classroom, his mother determined a one-on-one approach would be a better fit for her son.
“He always tells me that they got to play a game,” Karen Clark said. “I am seeing that he definitely takes away a lot from the lessons. Miss Clare has the ability to go with the flow, yet makes their time together meaningful.”
Will Clark and another student, sixth-grader Delaney Burke, recently had a lesson together with Miss Clare. The three had a conversation about the things that make God sad, and the things that make him happy. Often, those lessons are incorporated into preparing students for making a good confession, Evertowski noted.
“Will, what would make God happy?” she asked her student.
“Maybe not drawing on the wall anymore?” he said.
“OK Delaney, what makes God happy?”
“When I say my prayers,” she said with a smile.