Early Catholic learning program gets top grades from parents, kids

| Julie Pfitzinger For The Catholic Spirit | August 4, 2011 | 0 Comments

As the mother of a young son named Jared, now almost 3 years old, Laura Templin-Howk welcomed the chance to join the Early Catholic Family Life program at St. Joseph in Waconia last fall.

Since the program took place on Monday evenings from 6:30 to 8 p.m., it was a perfect fit for Templin-Howk and husband Jason because it allowed them to participate in a parenting class with Jared after work hours.

It wasn’t just parenting tips that Templin-Howk was looking for when her family joined ECFL. The sessions combine family time (when parents and children interact at various “stations” featuring hands-on activities) with an opportunity for parents to gather with a parent facilitator to discuss a variety of faith and family topics while the children are supervised by group leaders.

“I wanted to learn more about my faith and learn how to pass along the Catholic traditions to Jared,” she said. “It’s important for me to have my son grow up in that kind of atmosphere.”

Filling a need

Joanne Foley and her husband Alan, parents of four children and grandparents to nine, developed the ECFL program in 2000 for exactly that reason: to give young Catholic parents the opportunity to not only acquire stronger parenting skills but to encourage them to build and enhance the Catholic life of their own families.

“The idea for this program really grew for me at a time when I was paying more and more attention to my own faith,” said Joanne Foley, who worked for many years with several Minnesota Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) programs, including those in the Minneapolis public school district. “Faith affects your parenting, and I knew from working with young families that faith is something they wanted to talk about.”

As the idea simmered, Foley thought increasingly about the programming gap that existed for Catholic parents and their children between baptism and preparation for first Communion, which further convinced her that a Catholic curriculum designed for children ages birth to 5 and their parents would definitely meet a need.

In 1999, the Foleys met with Kathy Laird, director of the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life, and she was very supportive, said Joanne Foley, who went on to create a seven-week curriculum for ECFL. Pilot programs were established at St. Bernard in St. Paul and St. Michael in Prior Lake the following year.

Feedback for the program, which has been offered in numerous parishes since its inception, has been extremely positive. Typical class sizes range from four to 10 families. In order to make it easier for both parents to attend, many parishes schedule classes in the evening or on Saturday mornings.

“We’ve really learned from both those who have taken the classes and those who teach them that this is a program that really works,” Foley said. “Parents connect with one another and can share about their faith in an intimate environment. Children benefit and are exposed to the Catholic faith in ways they can understand.”

Seeing results

Templin-Howk recalled a memorable ECFL class last spring when the group took a tour of St. Joseph church, stopping at each Station of the Cross, which the children simply counted out loud.

“Ever since that night, Jared always looks for the holy water when we go into church and dips his finger into the bowl,” she said.

Kathy Holley has served as an ECFL parent facilitator at St. Peter in Richfield, where the Foleys are also parishioners.

“One of the topics that really resonated with our group was the idea of making Sunday Sunday: how parents can make Mass a big part of the day and how dressing up for church is important for kids,” said Holley, who has eight children ranging in age from 31 to 11. “Several of the parents admitted they had been spending too much time doing work on Sundays and wanted to change that.”

Some parishes charge a fee for families to participate in ECFL (many offer scholarships) and others have only suggested a free will offering.

For each lesson, there is a large container filled with everything needed for the class. If a parish doesn’t want to purchase the items outright, the Office of Marriage, Family and Life has all the materials available for parishes to use for a fee.  According to Holley, this was the option used by St. Peter and she said it was “extremely convenient and very user-friendly.”

Nancy Schulte, facilitator of natural family planning, and family and laity outreach for the Office of Marriage, Family and Life, would like to encourage more parishes to participate in ECFL. To that end, the office is offering a training session Aug. 13 (see box) for those interested in learning how to implement and lead a program in their parishes.

In 2008, the ECFL program was translated into Spanish; Schulte is “hoping to really get that version off the ground” and added there will be training for the Spanish language program sometime in the fall.

ECFL means so much to Laura Templin-Howk that she is planning to serve as a parent facilitator at St. Joseph this year.

“This class is my only opportunity to participate in an early childhood program with Jared,” she said. “The fact that it is a Catholic program makes it so much better.”

ECFL training session is set for Aug. 13

An ECFL training session is set for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 13 at the Hayden Building, 328 W. Kellogg Boulevard in St. Paul.

Pre-registration is required; at least two people from a parish must attend — one parent leader and one childhood leader — although up to four per parish are welcome. (There is a charge for the training session.)

For more information, contact Nancy Schulte at (651) 291-4489 or visit http://www.archspm.org/family and click on “Family and Laity Outreach.”

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