By Todd von Kampen
for the Southern Nebraska Register
NORTH PLATTE (SNR) — Teri Volesky doesn’t believe there’s only one way to stoke the fires of faith in little Catholic souls.
As a veteran elementary school teacher, the longtime second-grade religious-education instructor at North Platte’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish knows young children grow and mature in different ways and in different paces.
Even after 22-plus years, Volesky thirsts to bring Christ to life as her parish students prepare for their first Reconciliation and Communion. She routinely uses every technique she knows — videos, charts, flannel storyboards, puppets, physical activities, oversized rosaries, cutout figures and more — so they learn what the sacraments and the Church are all about.
“Our generation is perhaps too critical of the younger generation,” said Volesky, 56. “I see the fire (of Christ) spreading across the country with these kids.”
Volesky jumped into religious education at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1995, shortly after she and her husband, Jerry, moved to North Platte and learned the city had a church near their new home south of Interstate 80.
North Platte stretches across both sides of the two forks of the Platte River, the historic north-south dividing line for Nebraska’s Catholic dioceses. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is part of the Lincoln Diocese, while the city’s St. Patrick and Holy Spirit parishes, both between the North Platte and South Platte Rivers, lie within the Grand Island Diocese.
The Voleskys came to town when Jerry, a North Dakota native who holds a doctorate in range ecology, joined the faculty of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s West Central Research and Extension Center — also located south of I-80.
The couple, who married in 1985, are lifelong Catholics. Teri Volesky credits her parents, Michael Kerwin and the late Willa Kerwin, with deepening her faith as she grew up on a ranch near Pickstown, S.D., and the Missouri River’s Fort Randall Dam just north of the Nebraska border.
Her mother had little Christian upbringing, she said, but embraced Jesus and became Catholic after her marriage. “My mom was very good about evangelizing,” Volesky said. “She met people where they were. And she encouraged us in our faith.”
Teri met her husband at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where she received a bachelor’s degree in business and Jerry was doing his doctoral work.
After three years in Montana, Jerry went to work in 1988 for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in El Reno, Okla., near Oklahoma City. That’s when Teri turned to teaching, earning a master’s degree in education at Southwestern Oklahoma State University and taking a life-changing job teaching kindergarten at Holy Trinity Catholic School in Okarche.
She arrived there seven years after the 1981 martyrdom in Guatemala of Blessed Father Stanley Rother, who grew up in the Okarche parish. Rother, a missionary to the Central American nation’s Tzutuhil people, became the first U.S.-born priest and American male to be beatified when Pope Francis declared him “blessed” Sept. 23, 2017.
“You felt his presence in that school. He was talked about often,” said Volesky, whose students included Rother’s nieces and nephews.
She taught kindergarten full-time at North Platte’s Catholic McDaid Elementary School and the public Lincoln Elementary School during the school years of the Voleskys’ only child, 22-year-old Nicholas. Before he started school and since his 2012 North Platte High School graduation, Teri has substituted in the city’s public, Catholic and Lutheran schools.
Her St. Elizabeth Ann Seton second-graders — about a half-dozen each year — come to her having attended a combined Sunday-morning class for kindergartners and first-graders. The parish’s Sunday morning religious education program continues through high school, with Totus Tuus summer activities for both teens and younger children.
After a few lessons, Volesky settles on the teaching tools that work best for each child.
“When little ones walk into your classroom, some can read at a second-grade level and some can’t remember the letters of their name,” she said. “There’s just a multitude of ways to get through (to them). I don’t pull out the book and do the same thing over and over again.”
Volesky’s “Mass cutouts” help her depict the actions of priests and deacons, servers and parishioners in the liturgy. A gigantic rosary helps children master the prayers and remember the mysteries. She teaches some classes in the sanctuary and leads “saint studies,” focusing on a different saint’s life in each class.
“We do the Christmas story with puppets,” she said.
She knows first Communion preparation merely introduces her 7- and 8-year-old charges to “a mystery that is (also) difficult for adults.” With First Reconciliation, Volesky stresses that “Jesus is working through the priest to help you,” not merely to forgive their sins, but also to cope with the sadnesses and struggles of life.
“It’s a sacrament of healing, and little ones’ hearts are hurt just like ours are,” she said. “Kids in their prayer intentions will say, ‘I’m worried about my dog’ or ‘I’m worried about my cat.’ Those are valid.”
To renew and refresh her faith, Volesky said, she regularly attends the Lincoln Diocese’s annual catechist retreats, reads Catholic books and makes regular use of Formed.org, a Catholic website packed with spiritual resources to which the parish subscribes.
“I’ve learned that in this, as in teaching, you have to be a lifelong learner,” she said. When she teaches the faith, though, “I probably get as much out of it as the kids do.”