By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
For the past two years, St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa has taken a non-traditional approach to preparing youths for first reconciliation and first Communion. Instead of periodically meeting throughout the school year, students participate in “Sacraments Camp,” a week-long summer day program that organizers say helps youths retain information and build closer relationships with peers and parish staff.
“This week is set aside for those special sacraments,” said Samantha Ridder, the parish’s director of faith formation. “The focus is on the special gift they are going to receive.”
Previously, the youths met once or twice a month in the evenings during the school year. Ridder and Father John Spiegel, the parish’s pastor, noted that this isn’t ideal for second-graders, as it is challenging to remember the information with so much time between sessions. Additionally, it can be harder for the youths to concentrate since they’ve already spent a full day at school and extra-curricular activities. “They seem to retain information better because it is being repeated and constantly built upon throughout the week,” Ridder said.
The first half of the week centers on the sacrament of reconciliation, and the students made their first confessions on Wednesday night. The second half of the week focuses on the Eucharist, with the students receiving first Communion over the weekend.
The program has a “camp vibe,” hence the name, Ridder said. The lessons include a mix of teacher instruction, written work, DVDs, service projects and crafts. The students play games and have free time periodically throughout the day. Lunch is provided and on nice days the group goes to the town square for a picnic. At the end of the week, the families come together and celebrate with a picnic. “It’s not just sitting down and learning in the classroom. They get time to play and interact with each other.”
The camp-like feel of the program seems to be helping the youths form strong friendships with each other. In addition, the parents have been growing closer.
“It’s really neat,” Ridder said. “The fellowship aspect was a bit of a surprise. It’s not what we were focusing on, but it really did flourish.”
The day camp format has also allowed Fr. Spiegel to spend more time with the youths and catechists. “Being a pastor of two parishes nearly 25 miles apart, my weeknights are often occupied with my dual obligations as to various councils and parish commission sessions,” he said. Now, he is able to pop into classrooms during instruction time and play games like foosball with the youths during breaks. The youths are used to seeing him at Mass, he said, and he appreciated having the opportunity to interact with them in a more relaxed setting. “I was just able to be more present.”
Fr. Spiegel and Ridder believe the program has been a great success, and they look forward to continuing in this format in future summers. “Youths like it, parents like it, it just seems to fit,” Fr. Spiegel said.