Catholic Herald staff
A third-grade catechist from Ss. Peter and Paul, Gilman, is being recognized for her creativity and faith by Catechist magazine.
Georgianna Whelan was nominated for the honor by Sr. Marianna Ableidinger, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration. Whelan is featured in the October issue of the periodical.
Currently teaching third grade, Whelan has also shared the faith with kindergarteners, first-graders, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.
“I’ve taught over 20 years total,” she added. “Probably kindergarten and third grade I’ve taught the most.”
Raised in southern Wisconsin, Whelan moved to Gilman after her marriage. She became a catechist before her son was in kindergarten and, for a period of time, Whelan taught both kindergarten on Sundays and older students on Wednesdays.
As Whelan explains in her interview with the Catechist, she is inspired by St. Patrick’s evangelical spirit and the goodness of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. As she passes on the faith, she tries to teach values and help children understand how they should treat one another, because children don’t always learn about religion at home.
“I remember growing up where church was really important, and it was just built into our lives,” she said.
Values and prayers were taught by parents, and children learned about the faith before they entered catechism.
“Today, I think life just gets really busy. People are stretched so much, parents just don’t have time to pass these things on to their children,” she added. “If you don’t have the religion, what do you have?”
The way she teaches religion classes has also changed.
“I think now you have to do a lot of hands-on things with the kids,” she said. “It’s not just out of the book. You have to do things they can participate in.”
While today’s children are aware of problems like bullying and sexual abuse, Whelan finds they may be less aware of teachings and meanings in the church.
A recent example: None of the children in her third-grade class knew a dove symbolized the Holy Spirit. Someone guessed the bird was a pigeon.
“You can’t assume kids know stuff,” she said. “You have to bring out the simplicity of everything so they can understand.”
In Gilman, students come to catechism classes directly from school, which also affects their attention span.
“We get the kids after school at 3:30,” she explained. “By then, they’ve had a full day of classes, and they are tired.”
“Sometimes you have to do showmanship,” she added. “A book is not the only way you teach these days. You have to bring in other stuff.”
Each class is different, and Whelan tries to provide the tools they need. One year, her third-grade class simply did not respond to textbooks, so they watched Bible story movies.
“They learned it a lot better than if we sat and tried to learn it,” she said.
Whelan often designs projects that will appeal to students while teaching them about God.
“When you have class once a week, you have to make use of your time,” Whelan said.
As someone who has devoted many years to catechesis, Whelan advises others to do likewise in their own parishes. Those who doubt their understanding of their faith can follow the textbooks and seek out information online, she said.
“I think people should be able to teach,” she commented. “I think it’s just a matter of not having the courage to do it.
“Everybody will give you support,” she added. “It’s not as hard as you think it is.”