GREEN BAY — “Hello, Bears. Fr. Mark here with a faith minute.”
This is the introduction Fr. Mark Vander Steeg, pastor of St. Bernard Parish in Green Bay, offers in daily YouTube videos titled “Faith Minute.” Fr. Vander Steeg started recording the videos March 25 as a way to stay in touch with St. Bernard School students after schools closed on March 16 due to the coronavirus pandemic and Wisconsin’s safer-at-home order.
With the help of Meg Lehman, evangelization and youth coordinator at St. Bernard Parish, Fr. Vander Steeg records the Faith Minute messages at night. Lehman then uses her video editing skills to add graphics and sound, and posts the video to the parish’s YouTube page the next morning. All of the videos are also shared on St. Bernard School’s Facebook page and the parish website’s “Faith Minute with Fr. Mark” page: stbernardgb.org/faith-minute-with-fr-mark.
“I wanted to provide a way to continue to feed the spiritual needs of the school community each day,” said Fr. Vander Steeg, who wears a knit cap with a St. Bernard Bears logo in every video. “The videos have been well received by a real cross spectrum of ages and families. They range from more serious to more humorous.”
Crystal Blahnik, principal at St. Bernard School, said Faith Minute is one way the school is trying to stay connected with its 505 students who are continuing their education at home through the remaining school year. Fr. Vander Steeg said his videos have weekly themes.
“I have done a week on prayer, a week on quotable saints, a week on the spiritual works of mercy and Holy Week,” he said.“Fr. Mark takes his passion for teaching children and his talent in storytelling into the digital world,” Blahnik told The Compass. “Last week, the school community reflected on the spiritual works of mercy and the school’s Facebook posts highlighted students who demonstrated these spiritual works of mercy.”
One of the students highlighted was Quinn Klohn, who chalked a message on her driveway titled “the hands and feet of Jesus are all around us.”
Blahnik also uses the school’s Facebook page to offer daily morning announcements via livestream. “I know how important routine is to running a home with children in it, and I intended to have the announcements as a way to at least give families something external and consistent to look forward to each day,” she said.
On one morning, she spoke about the hardships of being away from school.
“We’ve been struggling these last couple of days, coming to terms with the fact that we will not be going back to school,” she said.
“I know that your teachers are struggling with that, too, so keep your teachers in your prayers today,” Blahnik told the students. “I really think that, along with our health care workers, they are the unsung heros. They are raising their own children and trying to teach their own children while doing their lesson plans. So let’s keep our teachers in our thoughts and prayers today. Let’s say a Hail Mary for them today.”
After praying the Hail Mary, she leads students in the Pledge of Allegiance, shares birthday greetings and discusses a daily book. On Fridays, Michele Van Dyke, the school’s physical education instructor, leads the morning announcements, just as she does during the school year.
Blahnik said the school faced challenges transitioning to virtual learning, but technology is making it easier.
“Small challenges arose for some teachers in finding the right tool or solution for their needs and level of comfort with the digital environment,” she said. “Our students are learning, our teachers are generating lessons and engaging activities and our families are beginning to find a rhythm at home that is working for them.”
As a faith-based school, another challenge has been to ensure that families receive the care they need through the pandemic, she said.
“We have worked tirelessly as a school campus and as a system to provide lunches to our families,” Blahnik said. The school has, among other services, provided cleaning supplies for homes in quarantine and teachers make weekly home calls to check on students and families.
“This experience is shining a spot on the hurdles that some families have to go through to provide their children with an equitable educational experience, but it is also highlighting the best in humanity and the ways community can be a resolute part of making it through challenging times,” added Blahnik.