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Posted June 12, 2008

Moms evangelize with vacation
Bible school kits for Catholic children

By Paula Doyle
Catholic News Service

Never in their wildest dreams did siblings Susan Lawson and Melissa Kaiser think they would become self-publishers of materials for vacation Bible school for Catholic children.

Mothers with 11 children between them, they were busy raising families and doing volunteer work -- Lawson in South Carolina and Kaiser in Indiana. In 2001, Kaiser's neighbor, who wrote programs for Lutheran vacation Bible school, asked her: "Why do Catholics buy VBS programs from us?"

Kaiser, 45, whose mother wrote inspirational stories about saints while her own eight children were growing up, was troubled by the question.

So she called on two of her sisters -- Lawson, 51, and Mary Alice Beach, a 52-year-old Catholic elementary school teacher in Fort Wayne, Ind., and mother of three children, and suggested they take up the challenge of writing vacation Bible school programs specifically for Catholics to use.

"Our goal was to write, develop and pilot a program and find a Catholic publisher to co-publish and distribute it," said Lawson.

They decided their "Growing With the Saints" programs would include saint stories penned by their mother, Margaret Windle, 81. Beach would be a curriculum consultant and writer, Lawson would handle the marketing and writing, and Kaiser would be business manager, writer and vocalist.

"In order to develop a fun, comprehensive Catholic VBS from the ground up and self-publish, we all have to wear many hats and give more than 100 percent," said Lawson.

When family members exhibited their first vacation Bible school program at the 2006 National Catholic Educational Association convention in Atlanta, "there seemed to be a lot of excitement," said Lawson. Several Catholic school educators were happy that they could finally purchase Catholic materials for vacation Bible school.

"Our program is so not generic," said Lawson. "We are unique in that our Catholic faith, Scripture, the sacred traditions, including the saints -- our true faith heroes and heroines -- are woven into every component of our programs."

At the NCEA convention, she said, several priests mentioned that Catholics were way behind Protestants when it comes to evangelization and expressed their appreciation for Catholic vacation Bible school programs.

"One priest was delighted that we included the saints in such an adventurous spirit. He said he became a priest, in part, because of his mother who read him the adventurous lives of the saints," said Lawson.

Since debuting, "Growing With the Saints" programs have been used by 250 churches, including parishes in Canada and Guam military bases. "We're growing," said Lawson, who recently compiled a mailing list of 450 churches interested in Catholic vacation Bible school programs.

The program kits have a five-day-format. They are titled "Set Sail with St. Patrick and the Holy Trinity," "Assorted Saints and the Virtues of Faith, Hope and Love" and "Parachute With the Angels and St. Catherine Laboure."

They include Bible verses and stories, themed crafts, games and activities, music, daily drama skits and a closing ceremony guide for prekindergarten through grades 5-6. The programs carry an imprimatur, or official permission to publish, from the Diocese of Lafayette, Ind.

"It's much more than just a one-week, fun summer program," said Lawson. She said it's also "an opportunity to evangelize, re-evangelize and 'bring home' Catholics who no longer attend Mass."

"Parachute With the Angels and St. Catherine Laboure" is the latest kit in the series. It introduces characters from the Bible whose lives were transformed by the intercession of angels, highlighting the Annunciation and Mary's role in salvation history.

It comes with an illustrated storybook on St. Catherine Laboure that focuses on the power of prayer and how, through St. Catherine, Mary brought the Miraculous Medal devotion to the world.

"I like the fact that the programs are Catholic and unapologetically so," said Dionne Grillo, director of children's ministry at St. John Eudes Catholic Church in Chatsworth, Calif.

Two years ago, she ran a summer religious education program using the "Growing With the Saints" program on St. Patrick. During the school year, she has used the "Assorted Saints" program as a religious education resource kit.

One of the activities enjoyed by participants, she said, was looking for St. Juan Diego's roses and finding Our Lady of Guadalupe at the end. "It was fun. It was Catholic, and it was OK," Grillo said.

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Editor's Note: More information on these vacation Bible school programs is available online at: www.growingwiththesaints.com.