Teacher-pilgrims from Our Lady of Grace bring home the Holy Land

| April 6, 2017 | 0 Comments

Teachers and staff from Our Lady of Grace Catholic School in Edina pose near the Sea of Galilee in Magdala during their pilgrimage to the Holy Land March 5-14. They are, front, from left, Greg Aitchison, Michelle Hannan, Rikki Mortl, Marianne Brekke and Katie Foley, and back, from left, Joe Mortl, Mike Benson, Claire Solnitzky, Deb Skinner, Lisa Moeller, Chris Strantz, Jennifer Maurice, Katie Brown and Father Neil Bakker. Courtesy Father Neil Bakker

With the Holy Land fresh in their minds, 13 educators from Our Lady of Grace Catholic School in Edina will enter Holy Week with a renewed sense of Christ’s Passion and share it with their students and the school community.

In early March, Father Neil Bakker, parochial vicar of Our Lady of Grace, led the group on an eight-day trip to the Holy Land, thanks to a grant from the Minneapolis-based Catholic Schools Center of Excellence and school benefactors. Teachers in their 10th year or more at the school were eligible for the trip.

Ordained last year, this was Father Bakker’s second trip to the Holy Land, his first as a priest.

“I think the greatest thing for me this time was being with the teachers and bonding with them and seeing their faith grow, and seeing them experience this — all of these different places — and being able to pray in these different places and allowing the Scriptures to come to life,” he said.

Marianne Brekke, a first-grade teacher at OLG, reverences the spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity. Courtesy Father Neil Bakker

Assistant Principal Rikki Mortl, who’s served at the school in various roles for 12 years, experienced the trip with her husband, Joe, who teaches sixth-grade social studies and writing. She said they were able to grow in faith not only as a couple, but also with their colleagues.

“I had no idea how emotional it would be,” said Mortl, 33, a parishioner of St. Joseph in New Hope. “I think I cried at every place. I’ve never felt closer to Jesus.”

Several pilgrims attended Mass together on the feast of the Annunciation March 25 at Our Lady of Grace. They met for coffee afterward to reflect on the feast’s heightened significance, given their visit to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

“I’ve been a Catholic my entire life, and it’s never been as meaningful as it is now,” Mortl said.

During the trip, teachers stayed connected to their students using apps that allowed them to post pictures and videos that the students were able to comment on and ask questions about. They also used Skype and FaceTime to visit with students during the school day, even FaceTiming with the entire school one day before its 9 a.m. Mass.

Because Our Lady of Grace will be in session during Holy Week this year, teachers are taking the opportunity to enhance their students’ understanding of and reverence for the Passion. On Good Friday, teachers plan to post on the campus’ trees pictures of the Stations of the Cross from the Via Dolorosa, a street within the Old City of Jerusalem believed to be the path Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus’ tomb is located. Seventh-graders will be at each tree to explain the Stations to younger students.

“We’re taking the stations we got to experience over there and bringing them back to the kids,” Mortl said.

On Holy Thursday, the second-grade class will host a Seder meal, which some Christians observe because the Last Supper, at which Jesus instituted the Eucharist the night before his death, is traditionally believed to have been a Seder meal.

Kindergarten teacher Katie Brown said her students were excited for her to return from the other side of the world.

“Knowing that I was in these places that I have taught them about and they were continuing to learn about, I think, was really neat for them,” said Brown, 35, a parishioner of Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville.

She has taught at Our Lady of Grace for 13 years and said she’s been waiting until Holy Week to share her experiences with her students, for whom she offered Mass in the Holy Land.

“I feel like the very personal, faith experiences that I had will really impact the depth of which I can share those experiences, even with 5- and 6-year-olds,” she said. She plans to use pictures and artwork to help students understand Holy Week even more.

Brown said all the pilgrims are grateful to CSCOE and the benefactors for the opportunity and recommends that all Catholics who want to visit the Holy Land not let it be “just a dream.”

“I grew in my faith more than I could have expected,” Brown said. “I think I still have yet to see how it will continue to impact my teaching, but I know it will.”

To read Father Bakker’s blog detailing the trip, visit http://www.olgparish.org/our-lady-of-grace-blog/2017/3/18/holy-land-pilgrimage-recap-part-1-of-3.

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