Julia Cullen, pastoral coordinator of faith formation/elementary religious education in St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, leads a tour of the church for students who attend the Summer Intensive Religious Education program. Mary Stadnyk photo
Julia Cullen, pastoral coordinator of faith formation/elementary religious education in St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, leads a tour of the church for students who attend the Summer Intensive Religious Education program. Mary Stadnyk photo
By 8:30 a.m. Aug. 19, the campus of St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, was buzzing. It looked like it could have been the first day of school. The youngsters were there to participate in the parish’s Summer Intensive Religious Education Program taking place that week.

As she escorted her now first-grade son, Gavin, to the parish’s Spiritual Center for check-in, Melissa Strouse expressed appreciation for the program which allowed Gavin “to focus on his religious education” as well as “retain and enjoy the information he was learning.

“Gavin is coming home from class each day with a wealth of information that he is eager to share,” said Strouse. She especially appreciated how the catechists had the children write about the topics they discussed in a notebook and then each evening she had a chance to review the topic with Gavin.

“I am very impressed with the activities to motivate children,” she said. 

Summer Catechetical Staple

This year, the Colts Neck parish was one of 32 parishes in the Diocese to offer summer religious education programs as an alternative to a traditional weekly program held during the school year. Keeping in mind pandemic concerns, parishes like St. Mary and St. Mary, Middletown, offered their programs for two-week periods in July and August and made them available so that students could attend one week online and one-week in-person.

“For the second week, the governor mandated mask wearing so we all put on our masks for week two,” said Peggy Dunne, religious education coordinator in St. Mary Parish, Middletown. She noted that of the parish’s 1,200 religious education student enrollment, 800 students chose to attend the summer Radiant Joy program. Of the 800, 400 chose the in-person program while the other 400 chose to go online.

Regardless of when they attended, Dunne said that the students “are waking up and coming into a very joyous atmosphere in our morning assembly where we pray together, learn together and have fun and sing songs of our love for Jesus.”

Though summer religious education programs are offered in a different format from the traditional model, Dunne said the content presented in both is the same. During the summer, she said students had a chance to experience a Corpus Christi procession, attend Mass, receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, take a tour of the church, hear talks about vocations and learn about the parish’s Edge and LifeTeen programs.

“We encourage our families to attend weekly Mass and we give families an assignment for each of the seasons of the Church,” Dunne added.

In Colts Neck, Julia Cullen, pastoral coordinator of faith formation and elementary religious education, said 180 students in grades one through six participated in the Summer Intensive, with 90 going online and the other 90 in-person. Seventh and eighth graders who are in the two-year Confirmation prep classes receive instruction during the academic year.

Though the timeframe is much shorter during the summer, she said, students and their families are also required to attend a minimum of four out of a total of 20 of the various intergenerational programs that are offered during the year.  The intergenerational programs are a mix of liturgical, social and community-service activities.

Positive Program

Dunne and Cullen have received positive responses from the parents regarding the summer religious education programs.

“Both my children in grades three and eight could not stop talking about what a great time they both had spiritually,” said parent Gina Imbriano of St. Mary Parish, Middletown.

Commending Dunne and the catechists, Imbriano added, “I know this was not an easy task for you to pull off, but you did an amazing job and the smiles on the kids’ faces prove it.” 

Cathie Accomando, a catechist in St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, considered the summer program as “an opportunity for parents to immerse their children in religious education in just another way. 

“The interest in the Summer Intensive experience has indeed grown and I know as a catechist that it provides an intensive, yet beautifully designed curriculum from which the students definitely benefit.”

“This year’s program, as in the year’s prior, is a well prepared and joy-filled program,” she said, adding that even with virtual opportunities last year, which had their share of challenges, “I feel it was still very successful” in providing children with a kind, joyful and hope-filled experience. 

“The most vital components are introduced in this concentrated format and built on each day, providing great reinforcement as we progress throughout the two-week program. I know my students have a great base, and my hope is that their parents continue this beautiful journey with them throughout the rest of the year,” Accomando said. “I hope this experience gives them a little strength and a smile to face the year ahead, while providing them with a foundation of faith that will continue to sustain them throughout their lives.”