Keely Sanderson reads about the Our Father with some of her pre-Kindergarten students at Our Lady of Sorrows School, Ladysmith. An avid reader, the teacher has gained insight from Dr. Edward Sri’s book, “A Biblical Walk through the Mass,” which was given to her by a convert parent whose entire family was drawn to Catholicism after choosing OLS’s faith-based education. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Catholic Schools Week was a first for Keely Sanderson, the new pre-Kindergarten teacher at Our Lady of Sorrows, Ladysmith.

Impressed by the turnout at each of the week’s activities – something she has noted with every school-sponsored event – she said, “It’s not just the number, but it’s the feel of community and togetherness that’s so touching.”

Also touched by the number attending one of the week’s annual gatherings, she said, “It warmed my heart to see students sitting with their grandparents during Mass and then see them interacting during lunch.” Sanderson shared how much it reminded her of her own grandmother, calling it a “full circle” moment.

She loved knowing that all the Catholic schools celebrated at the same time: “I appreciate the overarching that happens. It’s similar to Mass … everyone experiencing the same thing, even though we’re in different physical spaces.”

Sanderson first attended a school Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows with her mother, a second-year OLS teacher, in early 2017. After living in Seattle for seven years and facing single motherhood, she moved to Ladysmith to be closer to family. What she didn’t expect was to be drawn in to the Our Lady of Sorrows School and parish family.

“Something clicked in my spirit; it was so comforting,” she added.

While Keely was baptized Catholic, she was raised Protestant. She didn’t completely understand what was going on, and yet she felt “it was like coming home for me; very sweet and easy.”

Sanderson admits to having preconceived ideas about the Catholic Church. You can’t know much about something you don’t experience firsthand, she observed.

She does have vivid memories of her Catholic grandmother – holy water fonts in the house, the rosary beads moving through her fingers, the prayers whispered on her lips. And while her mother’s own faith has found fruitfulness in a Protestant church, the granddaughter has been pleasantly surprised by the “loving, open, gentle” relationship with Christ she is developing through her contact with the Catholic Church.

Self-described as having lost her way for awhile, Sanderson acknowledged her mother is “thrilled to see me re-establishing my faith.” She portrayed the maturing process of growing one’s own wings, often – though a natural part of the human experience – in rebellion against one’s upbringing.

Sanderson is seeing herself “coming full circle.” “Comfortable” was the repeated description – as regards the reverence, the reassurance of the rituals, the tactile involvement of sight, sound and smell in worship and the sense of being a part of something bigger than yourself.

After the new teacher orientation, Sanderson was “literally ready to convert on the spot.” She was uplifted by Superintendent Peggy Schoenfuss’ explanation of the mission of Catholic education, “so impressed” by the diocesan vision of schools as a highly respected outreach.

Sanderson has previous teaching experience in both public and Christian schools. Acknowledging that a public school curriculum should be limited given its setting, she emphatically affirmed the depth of additional elements “when you’re in this sweet Christian atmosphere.”

She has relished the opportunity to explore faith-based learning ideas, especially through the holidays and liturgical seasons. With a class of mixed denominations – although mostly Christian, as is becoming the reality in many of the diocesan schools – her experience interacting with parents is, “We’re all there because we want this faith-based education to be happening.”

The preschool teacher values how the Catholic school environment organically cultivates children’s natural openness to the supernatural. While faith among Catholics and other Christians at the pre-school level includes more similarities than differences, Sanderson sees “no distinction in the interactions” between students or teachers and students among those same groups in the older grades.

One of Sanderson’s favorite practices at Our Lady of Sorrows is the prayer partner program. Each student is matched up with a member of the parish (or other Christian in the community) with a commitment of mutual prayer. Students write to their partner monthly and sometimes receive correspondence in return – a thrill especially when letters are received at school. A yearly Christmas tea brings each pair face-to-face for fellowship.

“The wonderful thing is that the prayer partner stays with that child until they are no longer in the school … what an opportunity for both the student and the prayer partner,” she exclaimed. “It’s one of the neatest things ever!”

Sanderson relishes the celebration of the Eucharist. Acknowledging the negative connotation of Mass as a weekly “obligation,” she commented, “I … love … going to Mass.” “Comfortable” was again how she conveyed the universality of the liturgy, in any parish, the “same way, every time.”

When attending weekend Mass, outside of her modeling role as teacher, she still feels compelled to go forward at Communion. Though not able to receive the Eucharist, she appreciates not feeling excluded from her fullest participation, saying “Who can deny wanting to have a blessing?”

Sanderson described herself as someone who seeks to bloom where she’s planted, to participate in her immediate surroundings and seek an understanding of them. When Our Lady of Sorrows Parish hosted a celebration for the 100th Anniversary of Fatima, she not only attended, but later researched the apparitions and was “completely enthralled.”

In remembrance of her beloved grandmother, Sanderson asked Deacon Craig Voldberg for a rosary and taught herself the meditative prayers and its history. The deacon, an adult convert himself, has been influential in Sanderson’s exploration of Catholicism.

Encouraged by the messages she hears in and around Our Lady of Sorrows, Sanderson is moved to “keep focus on a relationship with God.” She has taken to heart Deacon Voldberg’s invitation to explore the process of finding peace and a path of personal growth – “wherever you are in your journey is okay.”