Says working with children enriched faith, gave joy
By DIANE SCHLINDWEIN
When it comes to leading PSR classes, only a few people in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois can match the years Cathy Mitchell has been teaching in Illiopolis. Whether assisting at a class, teaching, or acting as DRE of Resurrection Parish, Mitchell has been involved with PSR since the early 1980s.
In the beginning, Mitchell was an assistant when her son was in classes at what used to be known as Visitation Parish in Illiopolis. She had decided the best way to get to know people was to get involved with the parish. “I thought I’d like working with the religious ed program,” she said. “I started as a helper in the classes on Wednesday evening. The first class I taught solo was my daughter’s first Communion class. The teacher had retired, and no one wanted to do sacramental prep, so I said I would try.”
Since those early days, she has seen a lot of changes. “When I started teaching the three parishes (Visitation in Illiopolis, St. Joseph in Buffalo, and St. Ann in Niantic) were all separate and doing their own programs,” she explained. “When the parishes combined as a tri-parish, but each had their own church, we still did everything in our own parishes until the three parishes came together under one church. There were some activities we might do together, but classes and sacraments were held in each separate parish.” She says in “the old days” everything was done with workbooks. “Now we use a variety of resources to engage the children more,” she said.
At Resurrection Parish, students now attend PSR classes during the hour before Sunday Mass. The program is small, with 10 to 12 children in grades 1-6. “Right now, we don’t have any junior high students and only one in high school,” she said. “At this time, I am teaching the third- and fourth-grade class, which is three students. This is my second year with this class, and they are doing the Restored Order of Sacraments. We had one receive the sacraments last year and another one set for this year and one in RCIC. The ones going through the sacraments are given additional time with me outside of class.”
In addition to Sunday classes, each year the PSR students take part in opening and closing events, and a Christmas party. “We try to include fun in their learning experiences,” she said. “I also do Rice Krispie Advent wreaths with my class every year. The children learn discipleship by helping with food pantry collections, socks for the homeless, and most every year they assist in the making of sandwiches for the homeless when our parish provides the meal.”
However, Mitchell doesn’t limit her parish participation to teaching PSR. “Being a member of a small parish allows you to be able to get involved in almost all aspects of parish life,” she said. “I am currently on the Pastoral Council and DRE in addition to teaching PSR and RCIA. When our parishes combined, they wanted to keep a few people who know the parishes history on the council. I am also head of the kitchen for the chicken dinner … for so many years I can’t remember. My newest duty is working part-time as parish secretary, which I started in March. One of the best parts of working in a small parish is getting to know everyone personally. We are like one big family, and we become that way by worshipping and working together.”
As DRE, Mitchell says she oversees finding people to volunteer. “Every time I ask for volunteers to help teach PSR, I am told, ‘I don’t know enough to teach’ or ‘I don’t feel qualified to answer the children’s questions.’ I respond that if you start with the younger students, you can learn along with them. Every year I teach I learn something. We are here to teach the children that God loves them and cares for them. No matter what. … There is nothing that warms my heart more and shows it’s all worth it than sitting in the back of church and watching my class receive reconciliation, first Communion, or confirmation. Somehow those energetic students become little angels ready to experience God’s love in the sacraments.”
She has several other reasons for continuing her teaching ministry. “I guess I have kept coming back to teach PSR partially because the need is there, partially because it is a fun and new experience each time, and mostly because I believe it is what God wants me to do,” said Mitchell, who has been married 48 years and has two grown children and three grandsons. “I took a year off now and then, and during those times it seemed like something was missing. I think it was the sharing of my faith with the children —and they shared their faith with me. I love to see the children grow spiritually and know that I am helping them on their journey with God.
“When I am working with the students, I get to see the simplicity of faith and how sometimes we make it so much more complicated than it needs to be. They have such a different perspective on things,” she said. “The young ones are little sponges eager to hear about God. The older ones challenge me with questions that sometimes I need to research — and in the process learn more about my faith. As they learn, I also learn, deepening and growing my faith and helping me see just how blessed I am.”