WAUPACA — Gretchen Kelley uses her background in education to serve as a catechist at St. Mary Magdalene Parish.
“You’re supposed to share your treasures,” she said. “My background is education. I feel if you volunteer, you should be sharing something. I feel I should share that background.” She has been teaching religious education there since the 2002-03 school year which was the first full school year in Waupaca for her three daughters, Liz, Hannah and Emma.
Kelley and her husband, John, moved their family from the East Coast to Waupaca in the winter of 2001.The couple are natives to the area. John grew up in Waupaca and she had lived in New London until her family moved to Waupaca, becoming members of St. Mary Magdalene Parish.
Kelley explained how she became a catechist at the parish. “Betty Manion asked me,” she said. Manion was the parish’s religious education director at the time.
“Betty was my confirmation sponsor,” Kelley said. “It’s kind of hard to say ‘No’ to your confirmation sponsor.”
Kelley said Manion not only knew her, but also knew her educational background. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, she has a degree in elementary education and a minor in early childhood education. Manion asked Kelley if she would teach her daughter Hannah’s class, and Kelley agreed.
After her first year of teaching, she moved to third grade and has taught that grade most years. “I enjoy third graders,” Kelley said. “They know how to read. They respect the teacher. They listen.”
Some parish members volunteer to be catechists when their children are in the program. Kelley, however, has continued to teach because she has the time and said she knows younger parents are often unable to teach due to their work schedules.
In addition, Kelley said, “Some are hesitant. They think they can’t do it.”
While she has a teaching background, she said it is not a requirement to be a catechist. “People are afraid. They shouldn’t be,” she said. “You don’t have to have all the answers. If you don’t have an answer, try to find it.”
Kelley has done that herself. A number of years ago, a girl in her class asked, “Why can’t a girl be a pope?” Kelley shared the question with the parish’s priest, so she could answer the student’s question.
Being a catechist at St. Mary Magdalene for close to 20 years means Kelley has seen a few different curricula, though the program’s basic format has remained the same. Elementary students meet in their classrooms for about an hour, followed by 30 minutes of group time with all the classes.
“Every grade level has the same topic every week,” Kelley said. “It’s based on their grade level.”
This year, however, Kelley’s role is one of support due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes are not meeting in person each week at the church. Instead, students have their textbooks at home and do their work there. They then submit quiz answers and a video. She is available for parents who have questions.
As a catechist,the lessons she likes most go along with her favorite quote (attributed to St. Francis of Assisi) that speaks to faith by action: “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
The emphasis in class every week is “you are Jesus’ hands,” Kelley said.
That means that when a friend is sitting alone at lunch or falls down on the playground, “you need to be there,” she said. “Jesus can’t be there physically. It’s your job on earth to help others.”
Even at a young age, students learn about Catholic social teaching and about taking care of other people, she said. “It’s what I try to preach in my life and is what I try to instill in them,” Kelley said. “It’s not about you, but what you can do for others.”
She has continued teaching because it is a way to share her gifts.
“I just like being with the kids, hearing what they contribute, what they come up with,” Kelley said. People should listen to children because they have a simpler, more generous view of the world, she said.
Teaching religious education is about showing students how to put Scripture into action, said Kelley. She especially enjoys classroom discussions when they meet in person. “Kids like to share,” she said. “They like to share about their families, their friends.”
Kelley plans to continue teaching as long as she is able to work it into her schedule. “I encourage anyone to be a catechist,” she said. “Kids have very basic questions — other than the one about the pope.”