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Schools get Catholic faith delivered despite online limitations

Singing hymns, praying and doing creative, faith-based activities together are just some of the many things students miss about their physical Religious Instruction class. With physical classrooms closed to many due to COVID-19, virtual learning remains in effect.

Catholic News writer Lara Pickford-Gordon got the opportunity to chat with Fr Anthony de Verteuil CSSp about his experience teaching a religion class for Maria Regina Grade School, a private Catholic primary school administered by the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny.

For 13 years, Fr Anthony de Verteuil has been a school chaplain at the Maria Regina Grade School, Port of Spain, going one morning per week to administer the Sacrament of Confession for the Grade Three to Five classes.

Fr Anthony has journeyed with many of the children for years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he usually gave a talk to the pupils before hearing their confessions. He would preside at Masses at the opening and close of the school term/graduation, as well as First Communion.

Though education institutions closed March 2020, Fr Anthony was asked to continue his religion classes virtually. He would connect with the children of Grades One–Five, one Wednesday, every five weeks via Zoom.

Fr Anthony’s first Zoom class with an Infant Two class was by his own admission, a “disaster”, but he looks back on that episode with amusement.

“I remember that only too well …I knew in advance they would not have much of an attention span, so I began with a prayer… but the attention span was a minute at a time,” he said. He “learnt quite a bit” from the experience and spent time before his next class observing various techniques used by other teachers such as the use of visuals. “In other words, involving the children and we usually have one, two or three prayers to break things up.”

Although his meetings online with each class were only for about 15 minutes, Fr Anthony said he kept the younger children in Grades One–Three alert by asking them to “stretch and yawn”.

“Poor things, they are just sitting and looking at a computer screen so after about seven minutes, I just yawn and say, ‘come on let’s yawn, and stretch’. I do the yawning and the stretching and encourage them.” He encouraged involvement by asking them to smile, wave, bow their heads for the prayers, and raise their hands to ask questions.

He encouraged involvement by asking them to smile, wave, bow their heads for the prayers, and raise their hands to ask questions.

Maria Regina’s Principal Elizabeth Crouch commended Fr Anthony’s ability to “distil a message” from any Bible reading and “bring it down to right where they are in terms of their development”. And when asked what did Father say? “They can tell you,” Crouch said.

Fr Anthony connected with his pupils and engaged them to contribute responses and share about their family/home life. After schools closed, Crouch said it was very important to have continuity with a “spiritual resource” like Fr Anthony, so he was asked to do mini-talks with the children. He went to the school to conduct the Zoom classes.

“He has such an incredible mind; he brings a realism and concreteness to children. He never ever does a sermon, homily and talk with children that they cannot understand and that is why in my mind he is so brilliant.”

Fr Anthony hopes that through the classes, he is imparting some ideas about the Catholic faith, giving “a little break” from the secular subjects and the children see “life is more than learning different things”.

He does not have too many themes in his talks because he sees the children every five weeks. Instead, he tries to focus on a theme, and “to give each talk a value in itself”.

On the Feast Day for Our Lady of Lourdes, he used photos of Our Lady and a grotto in his talk. As the patron saint of sickness and healing, he asked the children about caring for the sick, “if any of them had a grandma or someone sick at home and did they take care of her”.

Commenting on public RC schools, Chief Executive Officer Catholic Education Board of Management Sharon Mangroo said they “continue to hold school prayers and Religious Instruction. Some are doing the Alive to the World curriculum”. Schools had online retreats or special projects for Lent.

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