Early Catholic Family Life teaches preschoolers, unites parents

| Susan Klemond | March 30, 2017 | 2 Comments

Cathy Antonio of St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park works on coloring with her children, Dante, left, Leo and Sabrina in their Champlin home. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

Four-year-old Sabrina Antonio knows when it’s time to pray to Jesus: not only at bedtime, but also when her family faces a challenge.

The preschooler is thinking more about God and prayer after learning about the Catholic faith last fall through a program she attended with her mother, Cathy Antonio, and two younger brothers.

Meanwhile, Cathy connected with other Catholic moms looking for ways to bring home the lessons their children were learning.

The Early Catholic Family Life program helps children ages 5 and younger become more familiar with the faith, said Cathy, 39, who attended the seven-session course at Ave Maria Academy in Maple Grove with Sabrina and sons, Dante, 2, and Leo, 6 months.

“They’re still so little you can’t tell, but they’re like sponges that soak in everything,” said Cathy, who attends St. Vincent de Paul in Brooklyn Park with her family. “Even though you might not see it, I feel like they are taking something in, and they’re learning something about their faith.”

Developed in 2000 by a couple in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, ECFL offers a way for children to learn about God with their first educators of the faith — their parents — who, in turn, build relationships and get support and ideas from other parents, say co-founders Alan and Joanne Foley.

“This really gets parents to think about ways to incorporate their faith when their children are little and when it really matters, putting together traditions around faith, making the parent more connected to their beliefs, [and] being conscious about the way they share their beliefs with their little infants,” Joanne said.

Parishioners of St. Peter in Richfield, the couple has trained ECFL facilitators in about 70 archdiocesan parishes and schools, as well as those from other Minnesota dioceses and states. On April 29, they will host an ECFL training session at Annunciation Catholic School in Minneapolis.

The program is approved by the archdiocese and once operated under the umbrella of the archdiocese’s Office of Marriage, Family and Life. It has also been translated to Spanish.

Hands-on learning

Inspiration for ECFL grew out of Joanne’s experience writing curriculum for the well-known Early Childhood Family Education program offered in Minnesota public schools since the 1970s. In it, parents guide children in learning activities, and parents also discuss early childhood and parenting issues with other parents.

Both 67, the Foleys noted while they were raising their own four children, they experienced a lack of formal faith instruction for young children in the archdiocese. Alan called it “a gap between baptism to first Communion where you’re not doing anything to bind the parents to the parish.”

So the couple decided to develop a Catholic program based on the Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church with the merits of the Early Childhood Family Education program.

In each two-hour session, children and one or both of their parents spend the first hour exploring together different play stations that help them understand a particular faith topic. During the second hour, the children, guided by facilitators, continue playing while parents meet separately to learn, exchange advice and build community.

Children learn about the Eucharist, baptism and other aspects of the faith in small classes through structured play with a variety of objects and crafts. During large-group time, they also learn prayers, songs and listen to stories, the couple said.

Some aspects of ECFL are like those of another faith program for young children, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, but the latter doesn’t include parent time and education, Joanne said. Alan noted that parents also appreciate the chance to share with others instead of listening to a talk, adding that some can feel isolated in their own faith.

Some parishes offer ECFL on weekdays when it’s especially convenient for stay-at-home parents. Others schedule classes for evenings and Saturday mornings. The cost to attend the program is usually less than $50.

Parent connection

Some parents form friendships and community through ECFL, connections many families are looking for, Joanne said.

“Parishes want a program like this that not only engages parents and children in the life of the parish, but [also] gets parents together to form relationships with one another, because that’s often more successful at getting parents to stay in the parish and to stay connected to their faith than anything you might be able to teach them,” she said.

Close friendship and connection have been part of the program for Erin Murphy, an ECFL facilitator at Ave Maria Academy who participated in classes at Sts. Peter and Paul in Loretto with her daughters, Abigail, now 8, and Julia, 6.

A parishioner of Mary Queen of Peace in Rogers, Murphy, 34, said she and her friends have helped each other find ways to make faith important in their homes, including having more meals as a family, regular family prayer time and making Sundays special.

She recognizes “the value of Catholic education just for how it forms the whole family, and how being part of a community is so formative for both parents and children.”

Cathy, Sabrina’s mother, even thought of her ECFL class at Ave Maria Academy as a “mini retreat” of sorts.

“I had a time to get ideas from other moms about how they’re raising their kids in faith and how to grow in the faith as a mother, too,” she said.

Early Catholic Family Life training

Early Catholic Family Life is hosting a seminar to train ECFL parish program leaders 9 a.m.-4 p.m. April 29 at Annunciation Catholic School in Minneapolis. Two individuals should attend per interested parish. Cost is $200 for two individuals, plus $200 for leader guides and workbooks.

For more information about ECFL or to register for the training,
visit http://www.alanfol.wix.com/earlycatholicfamlife or contact Alan and Joanne Foley at 612-704-7306 or alanfol@gmail.com


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