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  • Writer's pictureDiocese of WNC

Growing Faith: After-School Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

By Rachel Carr, Diocesan Missioner for Communications

An ecumenical program at St. Mary’s, Asheville, is inviting children to learn the elements of the Christian faith on Mondays after school through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS), a method that lets children take the lead under the guidance of a catechist.

Teaching materials handcrafted by catechists fill three rooms in St. Mary’s education wing, one for each level of CGS. The catechist sets out materials related to the current church season, and here children can explore Bible stories, church history, and components of liturgy at their own pace. A CGS learning space is known as an atrium, and learning happens through the Montessori method. Materials range from raised maps to wooden figurines to paper cutouts to crayons and candles.

“Everything is hands-on and modeled for the size of the hands. It’s geared toward what is essential for the kids to learn and draw them closer to God and give them the ability to interact with their church services,” said Shannon Townsend, catechist for the St. Mary’s program.

Townsend has been practicing CGS for more than 20 years and is certified in all three levels. She is a parishioner at Grace, Asheville, where she leads CGS on Sundays.

“I’m always learning. They say the catechist is like being a true Montessorian, where you create the environment for the child. The work of our hands provides this environment, and it’s also a way for us to reflect on and meditate on each of the works that we’ll be presenting. We’re a catalyst. We’re here to present the works to the kids, but it’s not like a typical academic classroom,” Townsend said.

Since the last Monday in March, Townsend has used her teaching materials with the couple of children who come after school for level one. Many materials present in St. Mary’s atriums were brought in by Genelda Woggon, who retired in January 2020 after 14 years of coordinating children and family ministry.

We had matriculated a whole generation of children through all three levels of the catechesis atrium. These youth are now all active serving around the altar in various capacities and serving as lectors as well,” Woggon said.

The Rev. Canon Richard Rowe, interim rector, said the current program is a revival of the catechesis that Woggon started.

“This church once had many children in the catechesis. We have adults who are in their 30s and 40s here now who remember that. We went in the ecumenical direction because of the lack of young children here. We have some teenagers and preteens who are active as acolytes and readers, but few are young enough for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd,” Rowe said.

Children are grouped into levels by age: level one is ages 3-6; level two is ages 6-9; and level three is ages 9-12. The overlap allows the children to start in the appropriate atrium, with no requirement to complete the previous level before joining.

“If you’re nine years old we’re not going to put you in with the three-year-olds. Each year it spirals back around, so you revisit and start to synthesize. If anyone comes in who is new you can start at the base and work up with them at their level,” Townsend said.

Each Monday, Townsend arrives at St. Mary’s at 3 p.m. to prepare the atrium—and herself—for the children’s learning experience. At 3:30, the children arrive.

One of the regulars, Ruby, age 4, is the daughter of the lead pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, the Rev. Stephanie Foretich-McKey.

“She has a lot of fun,” Foretich-McKey said. “It’s been wonderful to watch her learn.”

To begin, Townsend helps Ruby light a candle on an altar prepared with the color of the church season. Then Ruby chooses an activity, which could be one she has done before or something new.

“For children who go and hear a nice story, it may be enjoyable, but they do not learn as early as this model as to what the priest, the deacon, the lay people are doing around the altar. The equipment that they’re using is the same as the child played with in the atrium. It helps them make that connection of what’s going on and why we’re doing it,” Rowe said.

The Montessori method of teaching allows the child to stay with one activity that catches their interest or do many activities during the session.

“It draws on their individual learning abilities and individual interests. The settings are given but the catechist with experience understands both what children like to play with and learn from, and the essential building blocks to present to them,” Rowe said.

Children often begin to recognize what they have done in CGS during church services and engage in a deeper way.

“I had a child in level three at Grace that one day said, ‘I love the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd so much! You let us think.’ They love it because you’re not giving the answers. You just ask questions to provide answers,” Townsend said.

Currently, Ruby is often a class of one, though a few children have attended the after-school catechesis throughout its first month.

“Our wonderful teacher is very used to starting with one or two students and going from there. Shannon sees herself as a seed planter rather than needing five or more children to make it worthwhile. She started the catechesis at Grace with very few children, so we’re hoping the same may happen here,” Rowe said.

Right now, two classrooms with many learning materials are waiting for students to join.

“CGS is so special to me and to all the children that I have shared it with over the years, and my heart is happy that I get to share it with others beyond my church. I am looking forward to seeing the growth and development, just like we hear in the Parable of the Mustard Seed. The tiniest of seeds, yet it grows so big that the birds of the air can make nests in it,” Townsend said.

The after-school Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is open to children ages 3–12 and takes place Mondays from 3:30–4:30 p.m. There is no cost to join. St. Mary’s is located at 337 Charlotte St. in Asheville. For questions, email or call the church office at 828-254-5836.


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