By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
The Vacation Bible School season is well underway for parishes in the Diocese of Davenport. Several are hosting VBS programs for the first time in years.
Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire last hosted VBS in 2007. With the COVID-19 pandemic waning, Father Apo Mpanda, encouraged the parish to give it another go. “He asked, and we took it on!” said co-organizer Erin Burchett, noting that Father Mpanda’s previous parish, St. Anthony in Davenport, has a vibrant VBS program. An intergenerational group of volunteers from the LeClaire parish helped bring VBS back to life.
The June program focused on the theme “Who is Your Neighbor,” complete with skits, songs, craft projects and more. The theme tied in with the Davenport Diocese’s yearlong focus on welcoming and belonging, Burchett said. She hoped participants would embrace the message that “It doesn’t matter who someone is; everyone is invited to the table.”
Catholic youths and volunteers from Ottumwa and Bloomfield participated in a wilderness-themed VBS program at St. Patrick Parish in Ottumwa last month, the first in 11 years. “Activities were based around the seven sacraments,” said Gail Bates, co-director of religious education for St. Patrick and St. Mary of the Visitation parishes in Ottumwa and St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Bloomfield. About 30 youths from the Hispanic and Anglo communities participated. “We were pleased with the turnout,” Bates said.
Prior to VBS, the parishes collected shoe boxes for mini Mass kits. Youths turned the boxes inside out to resemble an altar and used the empty space to store handmade, miniature Mass items. This activity was a big hit with the kids, Bates said. After youths returned home that day, “I received a picture of two of the children using their Mass kits.”
Parishioners also donated clear plastic produce containers for “Jesus survival kits,” which youths filled with bandages, tissues, cotton balls and other first-aid items. The kits also included Life-Savers candies, a tea light and a card showing how Jesus “heals, blots away sin and lights our paths,” Bates said. Youths and volunteers showed a lot of enthusiasm during the week and seemed to enjoy learning about and sharing their Catholic faith and are “still singing J-E-S-U-S,” she added, referring to one of the week’s theme songs.
St. Mary Parish in Wilton chose a “Cathletics” theme for its first VBS week in more than 15 years. “Honestly, it started with (parishioner) Suzy Bohnsack and I wanting our grandchildren to have the opportunity to go to a Catholic VBS, so we decided to give it a try and see how much interest there was in the parish,” said Taci Lilienthal. The women co-directed the program with help from 16 volunteers.
About 30 youths split up into five teams for the week: gymnastics, soccer, football, basketball and cycling. Each day, the teams rotated through game, faith, craft, music and snack stations. Deacon Dan Freeman blessed students with holy water and spent time getting to know them. Middle school-aged volunteers helped with sessions and skits. “They had just as much fun as the younger kids,” Lilienthal observed. Watching participants and volunteers grow closer to God and each other was “so rewarding,” Lilienthal said.
Meanwhile, Sister Cheryl Demmer, PBVM, cherished her final VBS at Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine. She retired June 30 after more than 20 years as the parish’s religious education and faith formation director. She said VBS is just as energizing for her as it was 45 years ago when she started leading VBS programs in Midwest parishes. “I was just excited to be there.”
Music has always been one of her favorite parts of VBS, especially hearing youths sing the familiar tune “This Little Light of Mine.” Last month, when the youths sang it during VBS, “it kind of brought me full circle. How many years did I teach children that song?”
Youths and volunteers honored Sister Demmer at the end of the week with a wall hanging crafted by youth volunteers Kaylynn and Carly Huot and signed by VBS participants. It read: “When it is sad to say goodbye — Shine Jesus’ Light.”
Sister Demmer is adamant that the success of the VBS programs over the years had little to do with her. “It happens because of the volunteers.”