You might say that St. Benilde School has taken the spirit of the Year of Family and Faith and run with it.
Over the course of five weekday mornings in January, students from all grades worked with their siblings, parents and grandparents to create a complete altar set for use at home as a hub of family prayer.
The innovative project included craft directions and an entire curriculum related to the following altar elements:
• A mini “grotto,” formed out of wooden craft sticks and colored stones, represents the cave-like places of prayer used by shepherds in the early history of the church. During their study of grottos, the St. Benilde students learned that the Blessed Mother has appeared to people at certain points in history – or in “apparitions.” In honor of the apparition seen in Fatima, Portugal, students colored a picture of Our Lady of Fatima to place inside their grottos. Mary’s flower – the rose – also was incorporated into the grotto’s design.
• Using colored pencils, each family group completed a small altar cloth featuring a border of crosses. The cloth’s central image – the Sacred Heart of Jesus – was also colored in and the symbolism of its various components studied.
• A wooden cross, representing Jesus’ great sacrifice, was painted in gold glitter paint.
• Finally, a votive candle, symbolizing Jesus, the Light of the World, was decorated with religious pictures.
Sixth grader Regan Valley, who worked on her family altar with her sister Zoey, a first grader, said making the grotto’s wooden structure was the most challenging aspect of the project. The best part? Gluing on her grotto’s gem-like stones, which was intended not only to make it sparkle, but to remind today’s worshipers that the prayer shelter was carved out of rock.
“It was the best religion class because we got to work as a family together on something (connected with) our faith,” Regan said, admitting that the teamwork between her and her sister already had resulted in a more peaceful sibling relationship, even at home.
Marian Nicosia, who worked on the altar items with her two daughters – sixth grader Teressa and fourth grader Catherine Rose – was amazed at how organized the project was, considering the number of families involved.
“The kids are having a blast doing it. They’re taking turns; they’re helping each other; they’re working together as a family – as siblings – which is always awesome,” Nicosia said, noting that the altars will give families “a focus” for their at-home prayer.
“It was very nice to see the children working on something so meaningful and so special, and the finished project is absolutely gorgeous,” Nicosia said. “I think it really just gives them the realization that you can do things with your hands and create things that are meaningful, outside of just pushing a bunch of keys and watching the pictures flash by.”
Before the altars went home with their respective families, they were blessed by Father Patrick Wattigny, St. Benilde’s pastor, before the Jan. 25 school Mass. Each family also received a family prayer service booklet as a guide to using their new altars.
The idea for the schoolwide project was brought to St. Benilde by Roxanne Valenti, president of St. Benilde’s Home and School Association. Valenti was inspired by a presentation on home altars given at a Council of Catholic Schools Cooperative Club meeting.
“I thought it was a great project because it tied religion into the home, and that’s precisely the goal of the Home and School Association,” Valenti said. “So we used (the CCSCC) idea, formed a committee and came up with this magnificent project.”
As elaborate and ambitious a project as it was, carving out time for the special curriculum proved to be no problem. Time for the five, hour-long craft and teaching sessions was achieved by putting the school on its Mass schedule, which decreased each class period by just five minutes.
In the spirit of enlisting as many members of the parish family as possible, the Home and School Association asked members of the Grandparents Club to buddy up with students who were only-children, had no siblings at St. Benilde or whose parents could not attend the weekday morning craft sessions. Other volunteers came from the parish’s rosary prayer group and vacation Bible school ministries.
Leslie Killian, who wrote the home altar curriculum with her fellow Home and School Association members Jennifer Muller and Jeanne Waguespack, said the team’s vision was “to have a Bible school within school.”
“We wanted them to learn things they wouldn’t necessarily learn in a textbook,” Killian said, noting that one element of the altar kit had special meaning: a take-home photo of the actual altar inside St. Benilde Church.
“It’s a reminder of our church family, and a reminder that this is where we come to get our spiritual meal (at Mass),” Killian said. “Jesus lives in our tabernacle. It’s just a reminder to the family of where we get our spiritual strength from.”
Project leaders said they would be happy to share the curriculum with any school or school of religion program. For more information, call the school office at 833-9894.