Massachusetts after-school program binds children to church

A little after 3 p.m. on a Thursday, children in grades three through eight begin dashing through the doorway of an old red brick convent behind St. Mary’s Church in Waltham, Mass., having finished their days at nearby public schools. Lugging backpacks and wearing shorts and T-shirts, they have arrived for religious education — although you wouldn’t know it, just by looking at them during the next couple of hours.

The first stop is the lunchroom, where the kids help themselves to hot bagel sandwiches and juice. Then they separate out into six classrooms upstairs for an hour of homework with help from parish volunteers. After that comes an hour of recreation: soccer and other pursuits on St. Mary’s sprawling front lawn, on a summer-like day in October. Not until the third hour will the children take part in what most would recognize as a spiritual activity — a celebration of the Eucharist in the building’s six-pew chapel.

For St. Mary’s pastor, Father Michael Nolan, all of it is religious education.

“We’re just caring for the whole person — mind, body and soul,” Father Nolan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston who was ordained in 2000, told Our Sunday Visitor.

And the children — nearly 50 of them from surrounding urban neighborhoods — are not just there one day a week. They come Monday through Friday, for three hours each day. The third block, devoted to faith formation, varies from one day to the next: catechesis on Mondays and Wednesdays, hymn-singing on Tuesdays, and Eucharistic adoration on Fridays, in addition to the Thursday Mass. The program began in September 2012. It is an extraordinary amount of per-child time for parish religious education (including or not including the homework help and recreation).

Part of the idea is to restore the relationship between St. Mary’s, which shuttered its parish school in the early 1970s, and children. They are a diverse mix, including those from immigrant communities (Mexican, Ugandan, Haitian, Sri Lankan and others), in addition to the traditional Anglo groups at this 178-year-old parish.

Speaking of these children and their five days a week at St. Mary’s, Father Nolan said, “It binds them to the Church all the time. The Church becomes their home.”

The children are there all day on most school holidays (when parents work), and on those days they visit museums and historic sites in this old textile-mill city. The renewed connections between child and parish are also significant in light of the sexual abuse scandals that broke in the Boston archdiocese 13 years ago, the priest noted.

Daily exposure

Lori Dahlhoff, who heads the Religious Education Department of the Washington, D.C.,-based National Catholic Educational Association, said in an interview that many parishes across the country hold faith-formation programs after school, and many Catholic schools offer after-school programs where children play and do homework. But she did not know of another parish anywhere that blends after-school care with religious education across the week for each participating child.

Dahlhoff said the experiment at St. Mary’s addresses an urgent challenge for the Church: exposing children on a daily basis to Catholic life and the faith community.

“It’s a way of re-creating the Catholic subculture,” she said, noting that past generations of Catholics took much of this for granted.

She added that faith formation also includes “family formation,” which might mean helping out families in which children come home to empty houses because parents are working.

“You don’t just look at the child, you look at the whole family, the whole life of faith,” Dahlhoff said. “It’s about a whole life with Jesus Christ.”

At St. Mary’s, families are charged a nominal fee of $10 per week for the program, but simply many pay what they can, which is often just a couple of dollars a week, Father Nolan said. Staffing the program are two paid coordinators along with a slew of volunteers.

Holistic approach

Although St. Mary’s is unusual, Catholic religious education programs in the United States are increasingly taking a broader approach. They are going beyond the traditional one-hour of religious instruction before Mass on Sundays or after school on weekdays.

In addition to catechesis, service to the wider community is a growing part of the religious education landscape. So are liturgical activities and devotional practices such as praying the Rosary, according to Dahlhoff.

As for the 15 hours a week of holistic religious education, Father Nolan has trouble seeing how it could be done any other way, although it is usually done elsewhere in a less ambitious way.

“What could you learn in one hour a week, 20 times a year?” he asks rhetorically, alluding to the traditional schedule of parish religious education.

A 1987 graduate of Boston College, Father Nolan came to St. Mary’s six years ago. He quickly revamped the church’s Sunday school into a two-hour program including required Mass attendance, before launching the after-school initiative last year. Some of the after-school children (not all of whom are Catholics) participate in the Sunday school as well.

Pitching in are 10 high school students who, in addition to doing their own homework, set up soccer nets and play basketball with the elementary and middle school children.

These volunteers and the younger students also tend to a garden behind the rectory; carrots, peas and radishes were in evidence on a recent day.

“You can’t do catechesis, if you’re not helping them” — children and families — “survive and thrive in this life,” Father Nolan said while walking back to the rectory. “You can’t care for the soul if you neglect the body.”

William Bole writes from Massachusetts.

Parish Religious Education Week