BERGEN BEACH — When schools went remote last spring, religious education programs also pivoted to continue teaching children about the Catholic faith and sacraments.
“The really important thing is that, in all of the pandemic, we’ve learned that we cannot just keep doing things the way we’ve always done them,” said Father Joseph Gibino, vicar for Evangelization and Catechesis for the Diocese of Brooklyn. “We’ve got to be really new and creative in our thinking.”
Melissa Wagner, director of Faith Formation and the School of Religion at St. Bernard Parish, for example, reworked the School of Religion’s programming and communications to include technology components. By utilizing Option C — a program used by schools in the diocese similar to an online homeroom for students and parents — Wagner and her 30 catechists sent out more messages, Sunday Mass-related lessons and resources, and reminders to attend live-streamed Masses. They also implemented Sadlier’s blended learning “Christ in Us” catechetical program, which has transformed religious education experience in parishes.
“I was a child of a religious education program, and I always felt the disconnect from the parish. For me, it was always, ‘I go to religion on Wednesdays, and that’s it,’ ” Wagner explained. “Now, I think it’s been about the personal relationships I’ve tried to create with the families that have given them the confidence in knowing this is not about a one-day program.”
Wagner and her staff also continue to communicate with families through old-fashioned methods — making phone calls and sending customized postcards via snail mail. This, according to Wagner, allows her team to check in on the families in more personalized ways.
“When the pandemic started, people felt a little detached, and some even said, ‘I can’t even think about the religious aspect of schooling right now.’ We weren’t here to say, ‘Your child didn’t do the lesson’ — it became ‘We’re calling to see how you’re doing and if you need anything,’ ” Wagner said.
“This year, our motto became ‘The distance is temporary, but God’s love is forever,’ ” she added.
Though Wagner hoped 100% in-person sessions would begin this January again, students continue to meet with their teachers and St. Bernard’s clergy (made up of Msgr. Joseph R. Grimaldi, Father Michael G. Tedone, and Deacon Christopher A. Wagner) over Zoom. The program’s 260 students also meet in person — by grade in small groups on a rotating basis — once a month while adhering to health and safety guidelines.
“Even though our normal teaching practices have been suspended for the school year, it is through love — love of one’s parish, love of one’s students, love of one’s teacher — that St. Bernard’s School of Religion is able to have such a successful year,” Wagner said, noting that 90 percent of students returned for the 2020-2021 school year. “So many volunteers, staff, and families have dedicated their time and effort to this program, and it was all done in love.”
Similar to what was held during Advent, Wagner has organized four Holy Hours that revolve around St. Joseph for confirmation candidates to participate in this Lenten season.
She is also encouraging the 66 current confirmation candidates to help out with preparations for the First Holy Communion candidates. They are organizing reading materials and gift bags for the second-graders upcoming retreat.
“I’ve always told the confirmation candidates that they need to be the stewards and witnesses for the rest of the kids in the program,” Wagner added. “That way, when those children get older, they’ll say they want to do those kinds of activities, too.”
Wagner also modified the confirmation candidates’ annual “Works of Mercy” project, in which the candidates drew sneaker designs and raised monetary donations for Sole Purpose, a non-profit organization started by two high school students to help supply refurbished sneakers to the homeless in New York City.
The paper sneakers were put on display in front of the church during the month of March. Wagner said over $3,900 was collected during the first two weekends in March when the fundraiser took place.
Towards the end of Lent, St. Bernard’s School of Religion will be partnering up with St. Edmund Prep by making Easter cards for those living in nursing home facilities.