On the afternoon of the Second Sunday of Advent, small children darted around the perimeter of St. Peter Church in Kirkwood, searching for the items on their photo scavenger hunt lists: the tabernacle. The reliquary. The baptismal font.
Their parents followed behind, helping them identify — and pronounce — each object around the church, matching the photos on their lists to the real things. Once the kids checked off everything on the list, they headed outside to the hot chocolate station for a warm treat.
This “Advent Seek-and-Find” is an event of the young families ministry at St. Peter Parish, which brings together families whose children are not yet school age. The activity is a simple way to get toddlers and preschoolers thinking about the things they see during Mass every week, said Tracie Jones, one of the group’s coordinators.
“Kids see what we look at while we’re in Mass, so then when I’m at Mass with my daughter, I can say, ‘Remember, we found this, what is this called?’” Jones said. “We’re getting that vocabulary in, and also how to treat these things with reverence.”
The young families ministry provides community and faith formation opportunities for both children and their parents.
“Our goal is, you make friends as adults, our kids connect, and we also learn that our faith is something that should just be part of your life, and not just something you do one day a week,” Jones said. “…We can do happy hours with parents, we paint pumpkins, but (we also think about), what are we really doing to ingrain ourselves in evangelization?”
The group, which welcomes young families of any parish, offers several events throughout the year. Last month, children decorated Thanksgiving placemats to be delivered to homebound parishioners of St. Peter. While the decorating itself was fun, the lesson was bigger than that, Jones said.
“We’re also teaching them about our parish community,” she said. “We’re telling them that we’re making something, but you’re not taking it home, and here’s why. So we’re planting these seeds of service and helping each other out and knowing that they are part of our parish, which is huge.”
Through early 2023, the group is partnering with Faith Alive in the Home, an archdiocesan ministry that helps families bring faith to the forefront of their family life through home visits and mentorship, for a speaker series on “Prayer as Play.” Sometimes, with young children, it can be difficult to know where to begin in teaching them about the faith, Jones said.
“One of our speakers said that actions is the first language our kids understand,” Jones said. “For me, I saw my 15-month-old start folding her hands when we pray at the dinner table. So it was like, oh, they do see and mimic everything.”
Having the opportunity to discuss faith and family life — both the joys and the struggles — with other parents in similar stages of life has been one of the best parts of the group for Jones, she said. “Those struggles we have as parents, where someone’s like, ‘My child was screaming during church today,’ we can say, ‘Mine too,’” she said. She recalled one dad asking for tips on bringing his young child to adoration and then reporting back about the awesome experience they had.
Erin Massey has been part of the group since her oldest, now almost 9 years old, was an infant. She remembers the personal invitation from Father Mike Esswein, assigned to St. Peter Parish at the time, to check out the group.
“A lot of times when you have little ones, you’re just trying to get in and out of Mass, and you don’t necessarily have time to chat,” she said. “Once your kids are school age, you have that in common, and a place where you see everybody all the time, but this allows the connections before they’re old enough for school.”
Now a mom of three, she remembers how much she appreciated getting ideas from other parents as a first-time mom. “I was definitely the young one asking all the questions when my oldest was almost school age, like ways other parents incorporate faith into their traditions,” she said.
Kathleen Criscione started coming to events about a year and a half ago as the group restarted after a hiatus during the pandemic. “The first time we met, I was like, I need a notebook to take notes, and started asking all these questions. It was so helpful,” she said. “There’s an immediate connection — when you have not just the children to talk about but also your faith, it grows the bond stronger with shared values.”
Greg Marischen, a father of three, said Father Charlie Archer, associate pastor at St. Peter, invited him to a young families event last year.
Marischen is one of many dads who are involved with the group. “It’s great to meet other young families with similar interests and values. Relationships are important,” Marischen said. “And my kids love it. They’ve made some buddies here, and then they get to see them at Mass, too.”
>> Evangelization with young children
• Faith Alive in the Home creates collaboration between parish and family to support parents as the first teachers of the faith. The program is modeled on research-based early intervention practices, such as the Parents as Teachers program found in public school districts, and includes home visitors who bring catechesis, materials and other resources into homes to help encourage parents in teaching their children the faith. For more information about the program, either as a family participant or a facilitator, visit faithaliveinthehome.org or contact Sister Maureen Martin: [email protected] or (314) 792-7612.
• Read the recent Living the Mission article “Evangelization Through Parenting” at stlreview.com/3P7SLEe
>> St. Peter Parish Young Families
The young families ministry at St. Peter Parish strives to connect both young parents and children (under school age) through faith formation events, service opportunities and more. To learn more about the ministry and view upcoming events, visit stpeterkirkwood.org/young-families.