Students at Sacred Heart Villa gathered around the altar placed on the stage at school, admiring a month’s worth of work they had put into the project for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
From their artwork and crafts, to the photos of deceased relatives and items of importance to them in their earthly lives, these kindergartners and pre-K students were learning an important lesson in celebrating and honoring their loved ones even after death.
Dia de los Muertos is a relatively new tradition at Sacred Heart Villa, an early childhood center in the Hill neighborhood of St. Louis and run by the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Drama and Spanish teacher Karen Jaeger has kept an ofrenda, the traditional Dia de los Muertos display, outside her classroom. Last year, students put up an altar, focusing on Blessed Clelia Merloni, foundress of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who was beatified that year on Nov. 3. However, this year was the first time students incorporated several subjects — art, music, drama and Spanish — to learn about the Mexican tradition.
Instead of making a fuss over Halloween, teachers said they wanted to share with students the spiritual aspects of Dia de los Muertos. “This is not about monsters,” said art teacher Ruthann Larrigan. “We’re trying to teach them that death is to be celebrated, because it’s a celebration of life.”
The children performed a song in English and Spanish thanking God for the gift of their lives, and decorated the ofrenda with mementos of their loved ones. In art class, they made colorful tombstones of people they’ve studied during the school year, including Blessed Clelia Merloni; St. Louis IX, king of France and St. Louis’ patron; St. Nicholas, St. Juan Diego, and even American pioneer Johnny Appleseed. Art students also made “spirit sticks,” out of branches decorated with yarn.
“Spanish kids, do you remember what an altar is called?” Larrigan asked.
“Ofrenda,” replied kindergartner Henry Meister.
Students celebrated the feast of All Saints Nov. 1 with a prayer service for the two- and three-year-olds; and Mass for kindergarten students in the chapel.
Elizabeth Amezuca, whose three-and-a-half year old daughter, Lea, is a student at Sacred Herta Villa, donated authentic Mexican bread, decorations, and fresh flowers for the ofrenda. “It’s very important to let others know about our traditions,” said Amezuca, a native of Mexico and member of St. Cecilia Parish in St. Louis.
As Catholics, we understand that “when you die, it’s not the end,” she said. “We go on to eternal life. The most important thing is to not forget our family members who have already passed away. They’re in our hearts forever.”