Small-town church draws big name trainer

Photos by Jody Isaackson Catechist Joy Wambeke demonstrates reflective play with a miniature city of Jerusalem for the 6-9 year age group. Children learn better with activities geared for their learning styles, the catechist said.

GHENT — To get quality religious training, one must often look to big-time seminaries or universities. However, in January, St. Eloi Church in Ghent will host a Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Atrium.

“Beginning in January, St. Eloi will be hosting a National Faith Formation Program to train laypersons to facilitate the class, or ‘atrium’, for the 3-6 year olds, Level I,” St. Eloi Catechist Jennifer Rabaey said. “This is a Montessori-based education program for children ages 3-12 years of age.”

Two other age levels may be offered at later dates, for those for the 6-9 year-old level and the 9-12 year-old level.

“This faith formation program is different than in other churches that utilize books, workbooks and color sheets,” Rabaey said. “We’re doing it in a way the children can best receive it.”

Montessori is a method of education that is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. In Montessori classrooms children make creative choices in their learning, while the classroom and the teacher offer age-appropriate activities to guide the process. Children work in groups and individually to discover and explore knowledge of the world and to develop their maximum potential.

It was originally developed by Sofia Cavallettie and Gianna Golbbi in Rome 50 years ago. It is said that Mother Theresa’s order of nuns used it.

“We don’t teach, per se,” Rabaey said. “We’re not telling students how to do it, but giving them the tools, space and silence to work it out themselves.”

Rabaey and co-catechists (learning guides) Joy Wambeke and Teresa Myhre work with the children who attend St. Eloi’s atriums.

Atriums are special classrooms with various learning stations for the hands-on learning. St. Eloi currently has one that the two lower level age groups share. The are also developing a second atrium for the upper level age group.

“Just the experience we had going through the training and learning new things was incredible,” Rabaey said. “We learned about what goes on at the altar, among other things, and we thought it would be of interest to others.”

This training is then shared with the students with age-appropriateness, in short, 10-minute lessons. After which, the students are guided to using the tools and toys in the atrium to reenact what they learned about and to spend quiet time contemplating what they had learned.

Some of the lessons include but are not limited to Jesus’ parables, Jesus’ life on earth, liturgical life, the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communions and Easter stories.

There is also time for group prayer.

Rabaey took her training in Ohio and is excited about the opportunity for prospective catechists to learn from a Minneapolis-based instructor who will be coming out to Ghent in January.

Speaker Carolyn Kohlhaas is the lead catechist at The Way of the Shepherd Montessori School in Blaine.

Even though the training is Catholic in nature, the courses are open to the public. There is a fee is involved that will help cover the stipend of the speaker, Rabaey said. She added that the atria have been adapted to other Christian traditions as well.

Anyone interested in learning more about the catechist classes may contact Rabaey at 507-532-7532.

It is also the hope of the St. Eloi catechists that if more catechists are trained they will be able to accept more children as students in their atriums.

St. Eloi has used the atrium method since 2011.

“We keep falling in love with this the more we do it,” Wambeke said.