On Jan. 5, the Friday before the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, five students from St. Katharine Drexel School in St. Cloud were welcomed into the Catholic Church through the waters of baptism in the presence of their families, godparents and entire school community.
“I’m just thrilled,” said Father Scott Pogatchnik, who celebrated the baptisms. “It’s a perfect example of Jesus touching hearts through our wonderful Catholic schools. Our Catholic schoolteachers are treasures of faith and formation at the heart of shaping Catholic culture.”
The Holy Spirit stirred second-grade teacher Deacon John Wocken, who proposed the idea of reaching out to students who had not yet been baptized, inviting them, if they were ready, to enter the church.
Deacon Wocken also is involved in preparing second-graders for the sacraments of reconciliation and first Eucharist. He said he often gets questions from the students who have not yet been baptized about becoming Catholic.
“As an elementary school teacher at a Catholic school, I see students coming up for Communion and receiving a blessing, not just the kindergartners and first-graders,” Deacon Wocken said. “I thought it would be nice to extend an invitation to those students who may, for whatever reason, not have had the opportunity to be baptized.”
At the beginning of the school year, Deacon Wocken sent a letter to the families of students who hadn’t been baptized and invited the students to meet with him regularly after school to learn about the sacrament. Using some of the materials from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, he prepared the students to make their own decision about being baptized.
“We did it as a total group with the intention to minister to the whole school community in the hope that it might spur more children to come forward to be baptized,” Deacon Wocken said. “The kids are wanting to be Catholic, and we are providing an avenue for them to enter the church.”
Scarlett Danielson, 7, is a second-grader in Deacon Wocken’s class and was among the five baptized. She moved to St. Cloud from California about two and a half years ago with her parents, Amie and Daren, and her younger brother, Holden.
Amie, who is Catholic, and Daren, who is Lutheran, never found a church that felt like home in California and didn’t have a solid church foundation there.
“When we moved here, we fell in love with the school community at St. Katharine Drexel,” Amie said. “We appreciate and value each opportunity our school provides and how they go above and beyond for our kids. We always hoped that we would have the opportunity for Scarlett to be baptized. It was something we always wanted to do for her as a baby. To do this with the support of the whole school and community has been amazing.”
“To us, it was a very moving, very touching and emotional thing for us,” she said. “We really appreciate and respect the way they went about it and they involved all of the students. That’s what made it really special.”
Baptized along with Scarlett were second-graders Andrew Stormo and Bridgette Henrichs, third-grader Jenner Moonen and fourth-grader Bella Jennings. Each classroom learned about and celebrated the occasion differently.
“It provided opportunities for the other students to reflect on their own baptisms, though many of them don’t have a memory of it like these students will have. But they will have a memory of the other students’ baptisms as a reminder of their own as well,” Deacon Wocken said.
During the school liturgy, the five students were baptized in their regular clothing. As soon as the ritual was complete, they were handed white garments — white shirts for the boys and white dresses for the girls — to change into before they brought up the offertory gifts.
“This made it very visual for the other students,” Amie said. “It was not only a spiritual transformation, but there was a physical transformation as they walked in in their white garments.”
Deacon Wocken also invited the student body to make handwritten notes or cards for those being baptized, which Amie said was very important to Scarlett.
“She sat down and read each and every one carefully, talking about the person who wrote it,” she said. “They made it such an important time for her. And they made it very easy for me to be comfortable talking to Deacon Wocken about the details. He was really committed to walking them and us through the process.”
Deacon Wocken hopes the witness of these families and students might spur others to come forward and be welcomed into the church.
“It has been an amazing opportunity for growth and learning,” Deacon Wocken said, “and I’ve grown just as much as they have through this process.”