By MARINELLA LENTIS
For The Catholic Week
GREENVILLE — For the last eight years, children of St. Elizabeth Parish in Greenville have been fortunate to enjoy the presence of the Nashville, Tenn.,-based Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at their summer Vacation Bible School.
This year, Sister Mary Celeste, O.P. and Sister Malia Grace, O.P. accompanied more than 50 children from July 15-19 in prayer, songs, games and more and helped them become “Champions for Christ” in an Olympic-themed Catholic VBS titled “Cathletics.”
In addition to learning a song and a Bible verse every day, children also discussed virtues and entrusted themselves to the prayers of five well-known and lesser known saints.
Sister Mary Celeste, a second-grade teacher in Denver, and Sister Malia Grace, a ninth-grade biology and philosophy teacher in northern Virginia, sat down with kids at the faith station, read and explained to them Bible passages on the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and the Fruits of the Spirit. The Sisters also led the children into the church for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
“As a Dominican who goes where the Lord sends us, participating in summer Vacation Bible Schools gives me an opportunity to glimpse in a fresh way the wonderful graces that God lavishly pours out upon His people in all times and places,” Sister Mary Celeste said. “Being at (St. Elizabeth) reinvigorates my own hope, especially when I see the impact of some insight or explanation on a little heart who loves Jesus and wants to love Him more! It is a gift — a gift to those whom we visit as perhaps the statement you have from St. Elizabeth’s says, but I will say a personal gift to a woman consecrated to God, who sees His love in action and realizes she is a participant. It is our privilege to be so remarkably welcomed and loved in each place we visit.”
While the Sisters’ primary responsibility was to teach the children about the faith, they didn’t shy away from singing, acting out the songs and even participating in water games.
Terri Sims, a rising ninth-grade volunteer loved being with the kids and helping them throughout the day but when asked what her favorite part of the week was, she declared, “honestly, being in the presence of the Sisters. It was a calming, peaceful feeling, it was really nice.”
How did the Dominican Sisters first arrive in Greenville? Thanks to some determined parishioners.
St. Elizabeth has always been a mission church and hasn’t had a full-time priest, but shares one with nearby Andalusia (about 50 miles away).
Also, up until 10 years ago, it didn’t have a children’s ministry. Because of this, it hasn’t always been easy to have daily celebration of the Eucharist or to have religious education programs.
Parents drove their kids to Montgomery in order to receive sacramental preparation. Director of Religious Education Teresa Cascio eventually started a Wednesday night CCD class which also included a dinner for the children so there would be no excuse for them not to attend.
While Cascio made sure that the children received proper catechesis, Deborah Giles continued working from the sidelines.
Inspired by a YouTube video, she had the idea of inviting some religious sisters to lead a Vacation Bible School so children would “see a Sister, touch a Sister, know what a habit is all about, why they wear it, and then the Sisters can teach them how to behave in church, how to pray, how to recognize Jesus in the Eucharist,which is the most important thing,” Giles said.
A priest recommended the Dominican Sisters of Nashville because part of their charisma is the religious formation of the youth.
In October 2010, under Cascio’s guidance, the children of the parish, 14 at the time, started a letter-writing campaign to the Sisters. In December, they wrote a second time, once again with each child signing the letter and in January, a third.
In March, they heard back from the Sisters who agreed to come because of St. Elizabeth’s status as a mission church.
The first year, three Sisters came and then two in the following years. A few times a sister who had been here before was sent back, but for the majority, it was new faces every summer. They had sisters who could play guitars, who could sing or who could do art.
No matter their talent, what they all have in common is their ability to speak to the children.
“I think it’s just so sweet to have the children all around them by the end of VBS and not wanting to leave,” Giles said.
“Children are just in awe,” added Cascio.
Many families from Montgomery and other surrounding areas such as Luverne, Troy, Andalusia, Brundidge, Auburn, have brought their children to the St. Elizabeth’s VBS over the years because they recognize the importance of the presence of Eucharistic Adoration and of the Sisters.
“It was a blessing for me to be in Greenville to witness the love of grandparents who as parishioners of St. Elizabeth make so many sacrifices to have their grandchildren receive Jesus and all the treasures of our faith in a very fun week each summer,” Sister Mary Celeste said. “It really reminded me of magnificence as St. Thomas references it (SummaAquinas, Summa theologica, II-IIa, q. 134, a. 1. ) in regard to the lavishly seeking the good of others. For example, they are constantly rearranging the room to accommodate all the activities and even remove all the chairs, take them off-site and return them late at night so that they may be used at the VBS in the morning. It was exhausting just thinking about the logistics, let alone loading and unloading a truck multiple times in one day.”
The parish has also had grandchildren of parishioners coming from as far as Georgia and Louisiana specifically for this.
“This is the children’s opportunity to actually meet Sisters and possibly have the Lord speak to them, ‘I want you to be this.’” Giles said.
The most rewarding thing about VBS is the participation of the children and the fact that they talk about it all year-round because they want to do it again.
“When children want to come to church it’s the most beautiful blessing there is,” conceded Cascio.
Do the Sisters make a difference?
“Oh my goodness absolutely! You ask several of the children what’s your favorite part and they’ll say the Sisters.” Cascio hopes St. Elizabeth can continue to host the Dominican Sisters in the future because their presence means a lot to the children of the parish and to those who visit.
“Every year is a blessing!”
By MARINELLA LENTIS