NEENAH — Children from preschool through second grade are eager to get to Mass each week at St. Gabriel Parish in Neenah, thanks to the efforts of George and Michelle Reckin. They have been members of the parish since moving to the Fox Valley from Milwaukee in 1983. In 2012, George went through the RCIA program and converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism.
“The RCIA program was even better than I expected,” said George. As a result of that experience, he and Michelle became part of the RCIA team and got actively involved in the parish. “When St. Gabriel’s started their hospitality greeting ministry, they asked us if we wanted to come to a meeting to share ideas of how to be more hospitable and welcoming to the community,” said Michelle. “We were talking about being more welcoming to families with small children.”
“We became the Young Family Committee,” noted George. As part of their work for the committee, the Reckins, who have nine grandchildren, put a notice in the church bulletin concerning young families.
“We welcomed young families and encouraged other parish members to be considerate of the parents,” said George, who explained that if a young child is acting up, the parents are doing their best.
“They’re here, they’re trying to have their child experience the Mass, and they’re trying to have that child behave properly,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to get two or three or more kids ready for Mass and to get here and be able to listen to the homily or Gospel. Jesus was very welcoming to young children. We wanted to remind everyone to be more welcoming and put forth a little effort to say thank you for bringing your children and I hope to see you again.”
From that bulletin notice evolved their “Wee Mustard Seed Ministry,” said Michelle. “We already had children’s Liturgy of the Word during 10 a.m. Mass. We wanted to complement that for the other two Masses (and wondered) what could we do to get information about our faith to the children who attended the other ones?”
They came up with the idea of making activity bags to hand out to children, ages 4 through second grade. Michelle hand sewed canvas bags divided into two groups, one for the 4K and 5K children and the other for the first- and second-graders. Faith-based items, which the children are allowed to look at during Mass and take home with them, are placed in the bags. The content is changed each week to correspond with the Gospel reading or the liturgical season.
“We hoped it would encourage parents to speak to their children about the particular Gospel reading or what was going on at Mass,” said George. “Why are we kneeling? Why do we stand? Maybe the parents don’t even know, so it’s a little education for the parents as well.”
The bags, which are hung from a wooden tree that George built, are filled with items ranging from coloring pages to simple word searches to prayer activities and art projects. Free printable projects from websites are downloaded and copied and items are purchased either at a local Catholic bookstore or on the internet. “We have 32 bags but give out 10 to 20 most weekends. We look for things that are colorful and inviting,” said Michelle.
Michelle and George attend both 4:30 p.m. Mass on Saturdays and 8 a.m. Mass on Sunday mornings. Generally, Michelle hands out the bags while George is doing his ushering duties. While the bags are designed for young children, they are also available for older children and adults of varying abilities to help them get more out of Mass as well.
When Michelle collects the empty bags at the end of Mass, she thanks the children for coming to Mass and thanks the people who brought them there as well. “We appreciate that they come,” she said.
George knows the bags are having an impact on the children. “I can see the kids running to grab a bag when they get to Mass,” said George. “I see the smiles on their faces. To see that happiness, it’s contagious. It’s so powerful to see those smiles.”
“The children seem happier,” added Michelle. “We hear from their parents saying ‘thank you’ for making up these bags, the kids are behaving better. The ushers are saying Mass is quieter. The kids are paying attention. They’re engaged and the people around seem more engaged, happier and welcoming to the young families. That’s a good thing, that’s what we wanted. We want to see these young families and these young children always be welcome.”