By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
BETTENDORF — As a Catholic school educator, Sister Stefanie MacDonald, OSB, saw a lack of quality curriculum regarding religious life and vocations. “My dream was to develop one.”
The introduction of National Catholic Sisters Week in 2014 was the perfect time to develop a curriculum, she said. “It’s still a work in progress — with each year building on the last year’s success.”Sr. MacDonald’s curriculum is designed for students in preschool through eighth grade to supplement their religious education at Catholic schools.
Sr. MacDonald is in her 17th year of teaching. She taught kindergarten in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as a lay person. She joined the Benedictine Sisters of St. Mary Monastery, Rock Island, Ill., in 2007. Since then she has taught at St. John Vianney Preschool in Bettendorf and Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in East Moline, Ill. Our Lady of Grace and Lourdes Catholic School in Bettendorf chose to use Sr. MacDonald’s curriculum.
“Sr. Stefanie reached out to me several months ago and I scheduled a tour of St. Mary Monastery in southwest Rock Island, Ill.,” said Jennifer Alongi, principal at Lourdes. “It was beautiful! So then I invited her to be a guest speaker in our middle school classes. She talked about religious life as a sister to all girls in grades 6-8 and Father Jason Crossen (pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish) came and talked about religious life to all boys in grades 6-8 at the same time. As a result of that visit, one of our sixth-graders actually spent a day at a retreat type of event for girls.”
Alongi invited Sr. MacDonald to visit the school in February to talk to the PK-8 religion teachers about the curriculum. “I made it optional for the teachers, but most of them used it or are using it,” Alongi said.
Although the curriculum was developed to be used during National Catholic Sisters Week in March, both schools scheduled its use around in-service and spring break. “It is a valuable tool whenever it is used,” Sr. MacDonald said. “The overarching theme is that Catholic sisters do what the Gospel calls them to do: help everyone.”
Preschool through third-grade students hear stories about Benedictine Sisters who help or helped in orphanages, food pantries, homeless shelters, etc. “These stories are based on real experiences, but are fictionalized for the age group.” Students in fourth through sixth grades learn about the communities that live nearby. Students in seventh and eighth grades learn about Catholic sisters nationwide.
Kindergarten teacher Anna Johnson said the curriculum is well planned. Each of the five lessons features a story, materials list, vocabulary and activity to help students better understand what the sisters do.
“My favorite was Sister Mary Rose who goes to visit an older lady,” Johnson said. Sister brings along food, company, and lights a fire in the fireplace to keep the older woman warm. “It shows how we can help others.”
The activity to accompany that story involved creating a food plate for someone. Each student received a paper plate, cut out pictures of food they thought would be appropriate and glued them to the plate.
Fourth-grade teacher Susan Smith said her two classes learned about the religious communities of Benedictines from Rock Island, Franciscans from Clinton, and the BVMs, PBVMs and Trappistines from Dubuque. The other grades also explore the Congregation of the Humility of Mary in Davenport, Carmelites in Eldridge and Dominicans in Sinsinawa, Wis. All are members of the Upper Mississippi River Valley.
“We go to their website and read about them. Sr. MacDonald has questions for the students to answer,” Smith said. Students learn the type of prayers the sisters pray, the congregation’s ministry, community governance and more.
Prior to beginning the curriculum, Smith had students write what they knew about sisters. “They thought the sisters wore black, did not use technology and are totally devoted to God. Yes, they are devoted to God, but (the students) have learned that many sisters wear regular clothes, use technology, work, read and watch television.”
Second-grade teacher Kaitlin Carlin said her curriculum includes stories about sisters that she reads aloud; the students make flip books based on what they learn. “Some of the stories are not illustrated, so they really have to listen. The students are really into this program. It surprised me.”
She believes the students like hearing stories about real people and she thinks it’s important for students to learn about religious sisters because the school and parish do not have sisters on staff.
Sr. MacDonald plans to improve the curriculum through teacher feedback and next year will add real picture books for the younger grades — not just photo copies.