As parents, children seek socially distant summer catechesis programs, parishes get a preview of what ‘families of parishes’ can offer

PLYMOUTH — Under normal circumstances, Vacation Bible School is an annual rite of summer passage, with kids gathering for a week or two of prayer, learning, fun and socializing with the Scriptures.

But 2020 has been anything but normal, so parishes have had to adapt — once more — turning Vacation Bible Schools into “staycation” Bible schools with engaging, enriching lessons that, hopefully, don’t promote too much Zoom screen time.

For three Wayne County parishes, it’s also been an opportunity to collaborate and share ideas as the Archdiocese of Detroit prepares to transition to a new “families of parishes” model this Advent.

Along with her counterparts at Resurrection Parish in Canton and St. Kenneth Parish in Plymouth, Sandy O’Shaughnessy, director of religious education at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, helped create “Together Through the Storm,” a virtual Vacation Bible School that includes videos around a central theme of finding faith in a time of troubles.

“It’s been a wonderful collaboration of ideas and brainstorming, working with other parishes and having a think-tank of people come together to make this happen,” O’Shaughnessy told Detroit Catholic. “Our team, guided by Karen Hogan, believes we are modeling ‘ahead of time’ what it means to be a family of parishes.”

Children smile as they participate in an assembly at Cardinal Mooney High School in Marine City during Catholic Schools Week in January. (Melissa Moon | Detroit Catholic)

Hogan, religious education director at Resurrection, said the three parishes created pre-recorded lessons for families to use together, along with at-home crafts and activities to complement each day’s theme.

“We wanted to be creative about how we engage people; not just talking to them, but engaging them with activities to do during the lessons,” Hogan said. “We’re using a free app called GooseChase, which provides craft projects, along with activities and prayers unique to each day.”

In the SERF Vicariate, which includes parishes in St. Clair Shores, Eastpointe, Roseville, Fraser and Grosse Pointe, pastors and religious educators have collaborated with the Archdiocese of Detroit to create “Journey with Jesus,” an joint online digital “passport” with music, Scripture readings, activities and crafts to serve as summer catechesis for families.

Patty Chase, regional coordinator of catechesis for the archdiocese, said leaders in the 13-parish vicariate began ordering summer Bible school materials in the winter, before the pandemic began.

“It turned out we couldn’t have these gatherings in the summer, and many parishes shut down their Vacation Bible Schools altogether,” Chase said. “But others wanted a modified program.”

By examining the Gospel readings for the eight weeks between July 12 and Aug. 30, the vicariate developed themes for families to use to prepare for the Sunday liturgies. The weekly lessons, available via PDF at UnleashtheGospel.org, allow families to take in the lessons on their own time.

Kids work on crafts at St. John Neumann’s Vacation Bible School on July 16, 2019. (Melissa Moon | Detroit Catholic)

“We know not every family can go to Mass right now, and we know families are taking vacations or ‘staycations’ right now,” Chase said. “So each lesson is a family adventure in faith.”

Other parishes are sticking with the tried and true Zoom meetings, which has become commonplace after half a semester of distancing learning.

St. Lawrence Parish in Utica is using resources from Our Sunday Visitor for its online VBS, which consists of five weekly Zoom sessions from July 8 to Aug. 5. Each session is 40 to 45 minutes, consisting of a short video followed by a discussion about how the young participants have seen God in their lives during the week.

“It’s fun to watch them on screen, their faces, when they experiment with the gizmos,” said Lisa Rajnicek, director of continuing religious education at St. Lawrence. “Today, there was a little windup train that had to travel across a piece of paper between two books, so they needed to fold paper to give it guiderails for the train to make it.”

Rajnicek organized a pickup of take-home kits that include a Bible, rosary, activities and gadgets for kids.

While not ideal, parents have appreciated the lengths parishes have gone to provide summer catechism programs on the fly.

Pamela Martin said her children, fourth-grader Dane and second-grader Aurora, have been happy with “Journey Through the Storm,” the program created by Resurrection, Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Kenneth, which began July 27.  

“When they announced VBS was going virtual, I wasn’t worried about them losing anything, because the team has put together a fun and amazing program,” said Martin, a parishioner of Our Lady of Good Counsel. “I think it falls directly on the parents to make sure their kids are getting the most out of virtual VBS. While we might not be together physically, when the kids do get back together, they will talk about what they learned, the experiences they had.”

Our Lady of Good Counsel is planning a “parking lot Mass” on July 31 for families in the VBS program, with families gathering to decorate the parking lot the day before.

A young boy sits on his father’s lap during an outdoor Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth. The parish is planning a parking lot decoration and Mass for Vacation Bible School participants July 31. (Dan Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

Martin said the program is a fun, upbeat change of pace from the doldrums of quarantine living and social distancing.

“The reason we’ve sent our kids to VBS in the past is they have a lot of friends from the community, who may not go to school with them, who are there,” Martin said. “It’s virtual this year, but it’s the same program, the same great teachers and pastors, rolling with the punches and doing what they can to preach the Gospel.”

O’Shaughnessy said the program features lessons and skits from Deacon Paul Lippard (of Resurrection Parish), Fr. John Riccardo (former Our Lady of Good Counsel pastor and director of ACTS XXIX) and radio host Teresa Tomeo, who are capable of drawing an audience from beyond the parish’s boundaries.

“This program has the potential to go beyond our Michigan borders,” O’Shaughnessy said, adding more than 100 participants have signed up. “God is good. It’s a new way to connect people to the faith. Like the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, it will go where it needs to go.”

While virtual Vacation Bible School can’t beat the person-to-person interaction kids get with a traditional summer catechesis, one thing remains the same, said Rajnicek, of St. Lawrence.

“It is still about making that connection to the Church; it’s still about going into the Scriptures and learning about people in the Bible,” Rajnicek said. “Vacation Bible School is about helping kids see how God is in their world. And when they can see God with them this week, that’s how I know what we’re doing is worth it.”