By Celine Klosterman
COLUMBUS JUNCTION — On the morning of Jan. 18 here, some 70 students crowded around tables in St. Joseph Church’s basement for the day’s Spanish-language religious education session. Earlier, some of them and their parents had filled a stairwell of the cozy church during a packed Mass.
The number of Catholics taking part in the liturgy and religious education has grown since St. Joseph expanded the student program this fall, said Father Joseph Sia, who became the parish’s parochial vicar in summer. Based on past registration, he’d expected 40 students to sign up for this year’s separate English- and Spanish-language classes — but 125 did.
“There’s amazing energy,” said Sister Cheryl Demmer, PBVM. Religious education director for Ss. Mary & Mathais Parish in Muscatine and former principal of Bishop Hayes Catholic School there, she took over St. Joseph’s religious education this fall on Fr. Sia’s invitation.
The program’s enrollment increase came after she arrived and after St. Joseph opened an English-language session of religious education to the 150-family, largely Hispanic parish. Anglo parishioner Amy Piper, a mother of four children younger than 10, pushed for the English-language program after discovering St. Joseph’s classes were taught mostly in Spanish.
“If the young kids aren’t going to get into their faith, there won’t be a church” in the future, she said.
Her daughter Linda, 9, last year was tutored in her faith by parishioner Donna Carpenter. The two made up the entire English-language religious education program, whose growth was stunted by lack of teachers, Carpenter said.
But on Piper’s urging, the two women decided to explore parishioners’ interest in an English-language session. “And all of a sudden, oh my goodness, all these kids came out of the woodwork,” Carpenter said. “I was just astounded.”
About 55 students, 47 of whom are Hispanic, now take part in the English program. The catechists are Carpenter; her husband, John Carpenter; Piper; Chriselda Cardenas and Lisa Boffeli, who teaches at Columbus Junction Community Schools.
Cardenas, a Hispanic parishioner, understands the appeal of the English program. She said her son José, 7, understands English better than Spanish, and that he and his brother Rafael, 15, need to learn in English prayers they were taught in Spanish.
She, Piper and Carpenter praised Sr. Demmer’s work. “She’s been wonderful, and she’s brought a lot of new people in,” said Carpenter.
New families started coming to Mass after children’s liturgy of the Word was introduced this fall, said Sr. Demmer. And more young families are showing up this year for brunch in between St. Joseph’s two Sunday Masses, said Carpenter.
“We need two Spanish Masses,” said parishioner Griselda Cuellar. “People love the way these priests (Fr. Sia and Father Jason Crossen, pastor) preach the Gospel” and minister to parishioners, she said.
Fr. Sia said he’s inspired by the enthusiasm he sees. “It’s a miracle for me every time I see the church full.
“…If you build it, they will come.”