APPLETON – Ever since she was a little girl, Nancy Guilbeault knew that she wanted to be a teacher. By the time she was in eighth grade, she was already a catechist at her parish in the Chicago area. She went on to have a career as an elementary school teacher.
She and her husband, Bill, moved to Appleton in 1986, when the youngest of their four children was 1. “We joined St. Bernard’s, because we lived close. Fr. Orville Janssen was here then and he was such an inspiration,” she recalled. “I started teaching CCD (religious education), as it was called back then, shortly after we moved here.”
Through the years, she has also been an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. She also served on the social justice committee and was part of the faith formation team. After she retired from her public school teaching career, she became a care minister. For the last four years, she’s been helping with the Children’s Liturgy of the Word.
When the pandemic hit, it put a halt to in-person teaching of religious education. With upper- and lower-level classes now combined and being taught virtually, she is off the teaching schedule for the time being.
Last fall, she was asked to take on another endeavor by Deb Holzem, the coordinator of faith formation at St. Bernard. “Deb is the one who started the Children’s Liturgy of the Word. (Liturgy of the Word for Children is a program in which the Sunday Scripture readings are proclaimed and explained on an age-appropriate level to children.) We do that at 10 a.m. Mass on Sundays for children ages 4 through 8,” said Guilbeault.
“Deb said she could use a little extra help. She asked me if I could take over the J.A.M. (Jesus and Me!) program,” said Guilbeault. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ So, she hands me a bag of puppets.”
J.A.M. is a program for children pre-K through third grade that was normally held during Mass on the first, second and fourth Sundays of the month during the school year. The children were encouraged to learn a new Bible verse every week, based on the present week’s Gospel, before returning to their families before Communion.
With COVID-19 restrictions, J.A.M. isn’t currently offered at church, so Holzem wanted the program to be recorded and posted on St. Bernard’s Facebook page. Since October, Guilbeault has been creating and recording a J.A.M. Gospel puppet show three times a month.
Even though she’s a teacher and used to standing in front of people, this endeavor is not the most comfortable thing for her, she said. “This is totally not my thing. I’m not a drama person. It is teaching though,” she said. “But this has turned out to be my pandemic blessing.
“I have three grandsons who live in Appleton and they’ve been going to school virtually, so they have plenty of time on their hands,” Guilbeault continued. “They always come over for dinner on Thursday with our son. I said, ‘I think I’ll ask them to help me with the puppets.’”
They agreed. “Will, 14, is a freshman in high school, Howie is 12 and he’s kind of shy. Those two are doing it with me and they never would have done it if it hadn’t been for the pandemic,” she said. “They wouldn’t be around for one thing. Gus, 9, does it too. He’s really into it. We break open the Gospel reading each week. We use my computer, set it up and record it.”
Filming the puppet show has evolved into a family affair for the Guilbeaults. They have five puppets at their disposal. “We have Jesus, John the Baptist, Mary and then we have two versatile puppets. I script it. I use the children’s Bible and write out the parts for my grandsons that they read,” added Guilbeault.
The show, which is about seven minutes long, is done in one take. “It’s unedited. We all make mistakes but we just laugh a little bit and go on. One time Gus yawned. This is not the most sophisticated puppet show in the world. It is what it is,” she said.
The J.A.M. puppet shows are being watched on Facebook, so Guilbeault knows they’re reaching their audience. “I can see that it’s viewed and once in a while there are comments. I just do it. The Holy Spirit is driving us to do it but how it happens is how it happens.”
As much as she’s stepping out of her comfort zone to do this, it’s a labor of love.
“The joy is once again being back to teaching and sharing my faith. Sharing this with my grandsons has been a powerful gift for me,” said Guilbeault. “This is about planting seeds. They see how important this is to me and they see me and their grandpa going to church every Sunday.”