Move to Appleton was spark that led Jaelyn Nelson to RCIA

St. Francis Xavier High School junior to receive sacraments of initiation April 3

APPLETON — Each year on Holy Saturday, thousands of people throughout the world enter the Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). This year, Jaelyn Nelson will be part of that prestigious group, even though she isn’t an adult.

Jaelyn Nelson is pictured near the sanctuary of St. Thomas More Church in Appleton, where she will be received into the Catholic faith at the Easter Vigil on Aug. 3. Moving from Milwaukee to Appleton with her mother in 2019 led Nelson on the path toward a return to her Catholic faith. (Amanda Lauer | For The Compass)

Nelson, 15, the daughter of Jennifer Nelson, will receive her first Communion and be confirmed this Saturday at St. Thomas More Parish in Appleton, the parish that her mom grew up in. She’s currently a sophomore at St. Francis Xavier High School in Appleton. 

While Nelson had been baptized Catholic as an infant, growing up in Milwaukee, she and her mom didn’t attend church. All of that changed when they moved to Appleton in 2019 for the start of Nelson’s freshman year of high school.

The move was initiated because her grandfather had surgery, and she and her mom wanted to be closer to family in Appleton. “My mom was open to us moving because she can work from wherever (because she works remotely). I was going to go to Wauwatosa West High School and I didn’t like that area and didn’t feel like I fit in, so I was looking at private high schools. My cousin, Ashton Rankin, is in the same grade. He loved Xavier High School and so I thought I would just tour it. I toured it and I loved it.” 

With her personality, it didn’t take long for Nelson to make friends at her new school. One of her new friends had gone through the RCIA process in middle school. That inspired Nelson to consider doing RCIA as a sophomore, rather than waiting to be confirmed her junior year like most of her classmates. 

“I felt like I was being called to the Catholic Church and this was the right opportunity for me,” said Nelson. “Being a sophomore, I’m not taking a lot of hard classes, so I have enough time. Every Monday, I go to RCIA for an hour and a half at St. Thomas More. I really like doing it because I feel like I can get away from my school life and my friends and spend time with God and different things like that.”

The other three people doing the program with her are adults, but that has worked out just fine for Nelson. “I’m super comfortable in the group that I’m with. We’re learning at the same pace. (In some respects), it’s been easier for me because I go to a school where I learn theology, so I kind of take what I learn in class and I ask questions about different things. Sometimes the other people in the program will ask me questions,” she said.

Having never attended Mass before she moved to Appleton, Nelson admitted that the whole service was confusing at first. “I definitely had a lot of questions, but, starting RCIA, all those questions got answered right away. Greg Mohr (the parish’s Missionary Discipleship Team coordinator for families and adults) is the best teacher when it comes to RCIA,” she said. “He makes you feel super comfortable. I get all my questions answered. He likes to make it a conversation between the class and God as well.” 

Nelson and her mom, who graduated from Xavier High School in 1993, now go to Mass together at St. Thomas More every week. Jennifer Nelson said this about her alma mater: “It’s an absolutely amazing school. The whole system is, really. It completely shaped me into the person I am today. We are blessed to have such an exceptional faith-based system here.” 

Her daughter would agree with her. “Going to Xavier High School made me want to do this,” she said.

Nelson is looking forward to the big day. “I’m nervous, but mostly excited,” she said. “This is definitely going to have a big impact on my life in a positive way. Learning more about God, I feel a lot more confident in myself. I’ve been getting into Bible journaling and bringing my artistic skills into that and saying daily prayers. I want to spread the word of God with everyone else, especially with my friends. Now that we can all drive soon, we want to go to Mass together and all that stuff.”