Fully Alive vocation rally helps sixth-graders open eyes to life’s opportunities
By DIANE SCHLINDWEIN
WOOD RIVER — On Nov. 7, 220 sixth-graders from Catholic schools in the Alton deanery, along with students from St. John the Evangelist School in Carrollton, gathered at Holy Angels in Wood River for Fully Alive, a vocation day aimed to open the hearts of the very young. That day the students attended Mass, heard speakers, became better acquainted with others from different schools, took part in eucharistic adoration, and interacted with priests, religious sisters, and postulants.
“Research has shown that young people begin seriously thinking about their future and asking the vocational question at around 11 years old,” said Sister M. Karolyn Nunes, FSGM, vocation director of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George. Sister Karolyn and Father Rob Johnson, associate vocation director for the Alton Deanery and pastor of Mother of Perpetual Help in Maryville, were the main presenters for the day.
“The goal of the day was to invite the students to grow in relationship with God and to ask the question, ‘Jesus, how do you make me to be fully alive?’” Sister Karolyn said. “What’s best for the Church is that each individual person lives his or her own vocation. The more each of our students can grow in relationship with God, they will be more firmly rooted in their identity and more prepared to be sent on mission.”
Father Don Wolford, pastor at Holy Angels, opened up his parish for the day. “Father Wolford, who was with us for the day, was incredibly hospitable and the church, gym, and parish hall were great spaces for the group we had,” said Sister Karolyn. “We were also blessed with an unseasonably warm day that allowed the students to eat and play outside during lunch.”
Sister Karolyn said she was impressed with the group. “I have a lot of experience in catechesis and evangelization for people of various age levels, so it came pretty naturally to capitalize on the youthful energy of middle schoolers,” she said. “I was particularly struck that because of the restored order of the sacraments, all of the Catholic participants were confirmed. That meant fertile soil to receive more from the day. We spent some time in adoration to close out the day together and most people would be amazed at how beautifully a church full of sixth-graders entered into the invitation to be with Jesus during that time.”
Father Johnson said he was thankful for the youngsters and how they reacted to the day. “It’s amazing how powerful the Gospel is and how much Jesus can do if we simply stay out of His way,” he said. “All we really did during the Alton deanery vocation day was put the kids in front of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and talked to them about His desire to have a good relationship and friendship with them, to give them their deepest identities as sons and daughters of God the Father, and to entrust a mission to them that leads to fullness of life and freedom and joy. Watching the kids get to be kids during a day totally centered on Jesus was awesome. I am excited to see the fruit it bears.”
Bishop Thomas John Paprocki concelebrated Mass, along with some priests, and was assisted by Deacon Bill Kessler of St. Ambrose Parish in Godfrey , who is a Serra Club member. Other priests that spent time with the students were Father Dominic Rankin, promoter of vocations and priest secretary to the bishop; Father Michael Haag, pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul in Collinsville; Father Pat Jakel, pastor of St. Paul in Highland; Father Steve Janoski, pastor of St. Ambrose in Godfrey; Father Leland Thorpe, OMV, parochial vicar at St. Mary in Alton and chaplain at Marquette Catholic High School; and Father Alfred Tumwesigye, pastor of St. Elizabeth in Granite City.
Other women from the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George who volunteered with the children included Sister M. Gemma Kissel, FSGM, assistant vocation director; Sister Mariela Stodden, FSGM, postulant director; Sister Miriam Westrick, FSGM, first year novice; and postulants Kristen Leaderstorf, Bridget May, and Taylor Smith.
Additionally, the children completed some ice-breaker activities and listened to talks. “The students were challenged to go outside their comfort zones and to meet students from other schools, and they took us up on the challenge,” Sister Karolyn said.
Of course, not every person is called to be a priest or a religious sister or brother; some are called to marriage or the single life. “The essential and basic vocation is to be a saint in whatever way God desires,” Sister Karolyn said. “That was the central theme of the day — become fully alive by living the way of love that God has designed you to live. When we are talking about a vocation, we are talking about making a gift of yourself. Sometimes one has to have his or her eyes opened to the magnitude of opportunities to make that gift.
“I have been proposing this idea to the Madison County Serra Club for a few years, but of course COVID put a wrench in our plans,” she said. “They were very supportive of the event and helped make the connections with the principals of the deanery.”
The Serra Club provided lunch for the participants and then the students played nine-square, corn hole, wall ball, and pick-up football. “In most of the arenas, the students got a run for their money as the priests and sisters showed off their skills,” Sister Karolyn said.
Stacy Henke, principal of St. Mary School in Edwardsville, said her school sent 18 sixth-graders to the vocation rally and she was very pleased with how the day went. “The day went very smoothly and seemed perfectly balanced. Sister Karolyn and Father (Johnson) played very well off each other in the way they presented the day,” she said. “Many times, when students from different schools get together it is for a sporting event, so this was much different. I think this was much more impressive for the students themselves — plus they had Mass together and then time in eucharistic adoration to reflect on what they were experiencing that day.”
Sister Karolyn said she couldn’t agree more. “Overall, it was a wonderful day and the fulfillment of a desire I have had for a long time. I hope it continues and grows!”
Here’s what the kids had to say
Here’s what some sixth-graders from St. Mary School and St. Boniface School, both in Edwardsville, had to say about the Fully Alive vocation rally, held on Nov. 7 at Holy Angels in Wood River:
“’A vocation isn’t just an occupation’ — that statement really got into my heart.”
Corey, St. Mary School
“What I liked about the vocation day was meeting all the religious sisters and priests.”
Teresa Foppe, St. Boniface School
“I really liked the talk about St. Damian. You don’t have to do big things, just everyday things, to be a saint.”
Lauren, St. Mary School
“What I liked about vocation day was when we went in the gym, and we talked about Christ. I also liked when Sister Karolyn and Father Rob were passing the wiffle ball and answering questions.”
Jersey Tobin, St. Boniface School
“Everybody can be a saint. We can all be called to be saints, sisters, and holy leader.”
Max, St. Mary School
“I thought the games were fun!”
Morgann Mueller, St. Boniface School
“Everyone is called to a vocation. Marriage, not just religious life.”
Lily, St. Mary School
“I really liked talking to the sisters that were there.”
Camila Carruthers, St. Boniface School
“Everyone has a vocation; you just might not know it yet.”
Zoe, St. Mary School
“What I liked about vocation day was when we were in the gym and Father Rob and Sister M. Karolyn threw the ball and talked.”
Ava Willis, St. Boniface School