Oshkosh youth decorate Christmas trees with ornaments related to saints’ lives

Advent project is fun way for religious education students to learn about saints

OSHKOSH — Learning about the saints, both traditional and more modern, has become a fun holiday experience for members of St. Jude the Apostle Parish.

Isaiah Steiner points to an ornament on an artificial Christmas tree decorated by St. Jude the Apostle Parish religious education students. The trees were on display at the Oshkosh parish’s St. Nicholas Festival Dec. 11. (Jeannette Merten | For The Compass)

For six years, religious education students in grades one through eight have been studying about the lives of some saints and then decorating a Christmas tree with ornaments that reflect significant events in those lives.

The trees, along with brief biographies, are displayed at the parish’s annual St. Nicholas Festival, held this year on Dec. 11. The children and visitors to the festival recorded several hundred votes for the best tree.

“It’s a great, hands-on way to learn about something that’s so integral to our faith,” said Michele Spanbauer, director of religious education. “It doesn’t just educate the children about the saints, but family members and parish members as well. As they’re going through looking at the trees in order to vote, they have the opportunity to read about the saints.”

This year, 12 trees were featured, with about 300 religious education students participating.

“Voting is hot and heavy,” Spanbauer said. “The winning class gets a pizza and ice cream party with Fr. Mathew (Simonar, pastor of St. Jude). It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the Advent season and do a little learning in the process.”

The winning tree this year featured St. Joseph the Carpenter, completed by the fifth grade class of Sue Sullivan. In conjunction with this project, the parish held a tool drive to be donated to the Salvatorian Mission Warehouse in New Holstein. The second-place winner was a tree honoring St. Faustina, completed by the sixth-grade class of Bruce Dumann.

Spanbauer said the program started because, at the time, there wasn’t a lot of material concerning in-depth study of the saints in the religious education resources. She said saints are important for children to learn about.

“They’re great examples of how to live our faith and how to do it well,” she said. “It really is a fun, hands-on opportunity to learn about these people.”

She said they include modern saints as well as more traditional ones because people “tend to see saints as coming from way back.”

Included among the saints featured this year were:

  • Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, an Italian teenager who died in 1990 at the age of 18. Her life exemplified heroic virtue and throughout a painful illness she often declared, “If this is what you want Jesus, so do I,” and “I suffered a lot, but my soul was singing.”
  • St. Faustina Kowalska, who died in 1938, the patron saint of mercy. Her diary, “Divine Mercy in My Soul,” is the handbook for devotion to the Divine Mercy.
  • St. Sebastian, who died in the year 288, and had been pierced by numerous arrows. He is the patron saint for athletes and the military. His tree was decorated with arrows and photos the children contributed of members of their families who are athletes or members of the military.

Students started studying about the saints in each of their classes in September. “It continues to reinforce the learning aspect of it, not just for students but for the families who come to the festival,” Spanbauer said.

She said several thousand dollars have been raised during the festivals through the years. Funds have been donated to a variety of nonprofit groups in the community.

Some of the religious education teachers leave the trees up in their rooms all year to reinforce what the students learned about their saint. Then the trees are redecorated for the following year’s festival.

The project is something the parish looks forward to each year. “It’s a fun event, it’s educational and it’s also faith formation, through the back door. It’s a fun way to learn about our Catholic faith,” Spanbauer said.