On most Wednesday nights during the school year, kids from first to 10th grade from three parishes meet at the Shakopee Catholic Education Center for faith formation classes.
The parishes — St. Mark and St. Mary in Shakopee and St. Mary of the Purification in Marystown — are among several in the archdiocese that are not all clustered but share a program.
St. Mary and St. Mary of the Purification are clustered; St. Mark is not.
Yet, the three Shakopee parishes have been sharing a faith formation program for so long that the collaboration doesn’t feel unusual, parishioners say. It’s all most of them have ever known, and they’ve known it to work well.
“There are a wealth of gifts out there when consolidating, and when merging, and when sharing,” said Janelle Heikkila, the program’s director.
After the announcement of the Strategic Plan for Parishes Oct. 16-17, all parishes will be encouraged to find new ways to collaborate, including on faith formation and other programing, said Jim Lundholm-Eades, a member of the task force which crafted plan recommendations for Archbishop John Nienstedt.
More to offer
Before any of the three parishes shared a pastor, St. Mark, St. Mary and St. Mary of the Purification united their schools in 1970 to conserve resources and better serve the community.
The faith formation program followed the school’s lead and consolidated five years later. In 2004, the parishes constructed a new building for the school and faith formation programs.
St. Mary and St. Mark are located in the heart of Shakopee. St. Mary of the Purification is a few miles away in rural Marystown.
The program’s 35-year success is aided by the fact that all the parishes are basically in the same city, said Father Peter Wittman, pastor of St. Mary in Shakopee and St. Mary of the Purification in Marystown. People who are members of the three different parishes could live on the same block, he added.
The Shakopee Catholic Education Center offers three different times for faith formation on Wednesday evenings: 4:30 p.m. for grades 1 through 5; 6 p.m. for grades 7 and 8; and 7:30 p.m. for students in grades 9 and 10, who are preparing for confirmation.
In an effort to meet parishioners’ needs, classes are also offered on Sunday evenings, or on a twice-monthly (opposed to weekly) schedule.
About 500?kids participate in the program, Heikkila said. Most of them attend the area’s public schools, like Pearson Elementary, where St. Mark parishioner Doug Schleif, 49, is principal.
Schleif has taught in the faith formation program for five years, and the volunteer work has been a “natural fit,” he said.
Schleif likes the shared faith formation program, he said, naming better funding and volunteer resources as important benefits.
It also allows the program to survive, he said. “I don’t think one [Shakopee] parish is big enough to support a program,” he said.
In Shakopee’s case, this is due in part to large enrollment at Shakopee Area Catholic School, whose students attend faith formation classes in school and geneerally do not participate in the faith formation programs until they’re preparing for confirmation.
“[With] any community the size of Shakopee that has a Catholic school, it’s hard to keep that . . . faith formation component thriving,” Schleif said.
Large, and growing
But thrive it has. The number of students enrolled in the program is growing, Heikkila said.
The program itself is also expanding. Two years ago, the parishes revived summer Bible school for pre-kindergarten to fourth-grade children. The first year drew 60 children; this year drew 150. The parishes had been without a program for about 10 years, said St. Mark parishioner Jennifer Klecker.
Klecker, 37, tried for several years to revive the summer Bible school before she was successful, she said. Without a program in Shakopee, she drove her two daughters to Pax Christi in Eden Prairie to attend Bible school.
“I?thought it was ridiculous that we had three parishes and nothing was happening here in town,” she said.
After first trying to start something at her own parish, Klecker sought support from the tri-parish faith formation program, which led to its 2009 launch.
“There’s a wealth of information when you have so many people together,” she said. “[There’s] fun and excitement in the community coming together.”
Klecker also teaches second-grade faith formation with her husband Jeff. Together, they prepare eight to 10 students for the sacraments of reconciliation and first Communion.
Teaching students from the three parishes provides an opportunity to talk about the different ways parishes might do things within their liturgies, she said.
Dave Siwek, 47, teaches a confirmation class, and he’s glad to see students from different parishes in the same classroom, he said. He likens it to the 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club,” in which students who otherwise wouldn’t socialize with one another form new relationships.
The tri-parishes’ confirmation students engage in conversation and work on projects together that they likely would not otherwise, said Siwek, who attends St. Mark.
“The idea of what Shakopee is, and [what] the faith formation program and the confirmation program is, [is] to be part of the community,”?he said.
The shared program also eases scheduling and allows the parishes to share staff, Siwek added. And with two priests in the three parishes, one is usually available to attend an event, which isn’t always the case in a single parish with a single priest, he added.
Still, communication and resistance to change continue to be challenges to the tri-parish faith formation program, Schleif said.
As a remedy, it helps to have the parishes’ pastors and leadership agree on what faith formation is and should look like before a program gets underway, Heikkila said. In this consolidation, Father Wittman oversees the school, and Father Tim Norris, St. Mark’s pastor, oversees faith formation.
It may be difficult for parishes facing a similar program consolidation to let go of control, especially if one parish’s program is well run, and people are wary of the unknown, Father Wittman said.
“I?think you’ve got to keep an open mind,” Schleif said. “[Sharing a program] can strengthen your faith because of the strong collaboration that can take place during that time. It’s a nice way to reflect on your own values, and what’s really important, and what you can give up.”
Transition is easier when everyone keeps in mind that faith formation and other parish programs are about bringing people closer to Jesus, Heikkila said.
“It’s not a territory, it’s a ministry,” she said.