DE PERE — Ashley Hendricks feels called to children’s ministry at St. Norbert College Parish. In fact, she can pinpoint the moment she answered the call.
Hendricks had been volunteering for the children’s liturgy on Sundays at Old St. Joseph Church, located on the St. Norbert campus. The leader of the children’s liturgy had left her position at the parish, so someone was needed to take it over.
“I woke up one morning and I remember getting ready,” said Hendricks, a 2006 graduate of St. Norbert College. “I felt like when I go to church today I need to tell someone I will do children’s liturgy. It’s fine. I got this. It was so bizarre; I came to church and Dr. (Howard) Ebert, who was one of my favorite professors when I was here on campus, turned around and said, ‘I want to talk to you.” I said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ It was super surreal. I felt called that morning to talk and he asked me the question.”
In non-pandemic times, children — age 4 up to when they make their first reconciliation — leave the church before the first reading for the children’s liturgy program and return following the petitions. Chris Hendricks, Ashley’s husband, leads the program for young people from reconciliation through fifth grade.
“They do deeper work with the Gospel and reflection,” explained Ashley, a second grade teacher at Dickinson Elementary School in De Pere. “I’m with the (younger ones). We do the Gospel, but are more hands-on with a craft project. We practice our prayers and read stories. It’s a different flavor than the big kids.”
Ashley misses working with the children at Mass. She is working on providing a virtual children’s liturgy.
“When the children are together at church, there is such amazing energy around them,” she said. “It renews your faith constantly to see things through their eyes; some stuff for the first time. They are so excited to share. It’s so fun to watch them grow.
“We will make it work,” she added about a virtual offering, “and some day, we will be back together again. We keep going the best we can. Kids are resilient.”
Ashley and Chris also lead vacation Bible school at the parish and serve on the Generations of Faith committee. Bible school was offered virtually in August.
“It was a ‘to-go’ theme, so I got all these different types of to-go boxes: empty pizza boxes, soup containers, sandwich containers, salad containers,” explained Ashley. “I prepackaged all the materials that they would need. They came and picked them up from church.”
Chris pre-recorded a talk for each day on a different story in the Bible. Ashley recorded a video for a craft project. Each day also included a service project. A live prayer circle closed the day on Google Meet.
“We had around 20 kids participate,” said Ashley. “Typically, we cap it around 50 when we are in person. Obviously, virtual is a different circumstance. I was so happy we could still do it. It was really neat to watch the kids when we would go on Google Meet because they hadn’t seen each other. They were so excited to see each other. It was heartwarming.”
Generations of Faith (religious education) is also offered virtually this year at St. Norbert College Parish. Ashley and Chris assist with the curriculum and professional development for the college students who serve as catechists.
“College kids are cooler than adults, right? So these kids hang on the words of these college students,” said Ashley. “It’s so amazing to watch these college catechists in their faith journey, their teaching journey. It gives the elementary, middle school and high school students such a different connection to church. It’s our faith family. It’s another layer of St. Norbert that is so special that you don’t find other places.”
Ashley grew up in De Pere as a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish. She served as an altar server, lector and taught religious education with her mother. Her parents, Joe and Nancy Vande Zanden, ran the youth group. The late Fr. Tony Dolski, who served as pastor at St. Francis Xavier, was among Ashley’s faith models.
“Talking about Fr. Tony makes me tear up,” she said. “He was such an amazing man, just so kind and caring. I have such good memories of Fr. Tony at the pet blessings. St. Francis (of Assisi) was his favorite saint and I always had pets.”
Ashley and Chris joined St. Norbert College Parish shortly after they were married in 2007. They have two daughters: Margaret, a fifth grader, and Mary Alice, who is in second grade.
“There is such a special feeling in this parish with the radical hospitality of the Norbertines,” said Ashley. “It’s just very easy to belong to this faith community. Everyone is just so friendly and welcomes you with open arms. You just want to be a part of that energy.
“When I think of my kids here, I’m so happy they are so comfortable,” she added. “Through different involvement, they got to know the other kids, other adults. It’s a place where they are safe. That’s everything as a mother. They see this place as their own as well.”