As is the case at many Catholic schools, morning prayer begins the day at Saint Dominic Academy’s Lewiston campus. But there, most days of the week, you won’t hear the principal or a teacher leading the students and faculty. Instead, it will be Alyssa, Caitlin, Connor, Curtis, Joshua, or Peter.
“We say the opening prayer, and then we do birthdays, and then the flag, and on Friday, we have joke Friday. Me and Connor are the comedians,” explains Joshua, age 10.
The students, all fifth or sixth graders, are junior chaplains, a program started this school year by Father Seamus Griesbach, who is school chaplain, and Principal Marianne Pelletier.
“We’re confident that even at that young age of fifth and sixth grade, they could take on certain responsibilities,” says Father Seamus.
“They know we are a Catholic school, and they want to be part of that,” says Pelletier.
The program is modelled after the assistant chaplain program initiated by Father Seamus at the upper school campus three years ago. That program has been a great success, leading him to expand it to the elementary school campus.
“Seeing the positive impact that the assistant chaplains had on the Auburn campus, we wanted to allow students the opportunity to minister on the elementary school campus,” he says. “I think it’s really important for kids to not just hear about their faith or to watch people doing Church-related things but to do it themselves.”
The junior chaplains have embraced their roles.
“I wanted to be one, so I could get more involved with Father Seamus and help out with Mass more,” says Curtis, age 10. “I think it’s important to help the school develop and grow in faith.”
“I wanted to become a junior chaplain because I feel like I want to help my school,” says Alyssa, age 11. “I actually used to think of church as kind of boring, but now I get to help and be a part of decisions in school. I feel like I’m kind of more put in, so I feel more a part of it.”
While the program is still unfolding, the junior chaplains have taken on several responsibilities.
“We lead morning prayer, and we help with Mass a lot. Sometimes we read, and sometimes we altar serve, and we come up with ideas for the school,” says Connor, age 11.
Principal Pelletier says the students frequently drop by her office with ideas. For instance, they proposed gathering for prayer earlier because they were concerned it wasn’t starting on time. And they want to expand the number of prayers the students know.
“They want to do the school prayer, which is the St. Dominic prayer that Father wrote. They want the school to learn that, which is a bit of a challenge, but we’re going to do it, because they asked,” says Pelletier.
The junior chaplains also assist Father Seamus in preparing other students to serve during Mass.
“I work on training them in a particularly robust way, so they’re particularly good serving and reading and carrying out some of those liturgical ministries,” says Father Seamus. “Then, when I train altar servers, they help me to train them. When I’m training readers, they help me to train them.”
Caitlin and Alyssa have also started to help out as sacristans.
“I stay after the Mass and come before Mass and do stuff: light the candles, unlight the candles, set up the table over there, sometimes place out the books,” says Caitlin, age 10. “It’s important that you’re respectful, that you genuflect, that you bow, that you place everything out correctly, that you’re nice.”
“I do the candles and the set up, and I help take them down. I help with the gifts. Sometimes, I sing in front of the whole church, which is called cantoring,” says Alyssa. “I really think taking responsibility in church is something that really sticks out for me.”
The junior chaplains also participate in community service projects. For instance, they joined the assistant chaplains in making pumpkin pies before Thanksgiving and went Christmas caroling at St. Mary’s d’Youville Pavilion in Lewiston.
“I like how we get to do a lot of stuff for the community, like we got to carol at St. Mary’s d’Youville Pavilion,” says Joshua. “We made cards for the people at d’Youville and presents.”
“Part of it, for me, is letting them drive it a little bit if there are pieces they want to work on,” says Father Seamus. “They take initiative.”
The junior chaplains, for example came up with ideas for games during Catholic Schools Week.
“I made up ‘Name the Saint,’ where there are these flash cards, and there will be a little written description about a saint. The first person to say it gets a point for their team,” says Joshua.
Pelletier says the junior chaplains are doing a wonderful job.
“These students are really seen as spiritual leaders,” she says. “I think it’s deepening everyone’s faith to watch this.”
“Children are naturally spiritual. They naturally desire God. There are a lot of kids who are attracted to prayer and service and being part of a spiritual community, attracted to just who Jesus is and what He represents,” says Father Seamus. “I think the most beneficial part of the program, both the junior and assistant chaplain programs, is that they have to, in some way, take ownership of their faith. They have to be willing to be identified for their faith, and there is something very important about that.”
The program has proven so popular that Pelletier says she has a waiting list of students wanting to participate.
“I have kids begging to get in,” she says. “I think the spiritual component is drawing them to it. They want to develop their spiritual skill, their spirituality. They really do. I don’t think it’s just about leadership and the showmanship and the presentation and the attention that goes with it. That’s one piece of it, but I think the students are looking at deepening their own faith.”
“I want to advance my faith in Christ,” says Joshua.
“You’re getting closer to God, instead of just going to church once a week,” says Peter, age 11. “Then, you can have the opportunity to be with Father Seamus and to get close to him and see his point of view on things.”
Father Seamus tries to join the students once each week for lunch in the cafeteria, where they toss around ideas and have an opportunity to ask questions.
“We always ask stuff like, ‘Were you religious when you were a kid? Did you ever question your faith?’ Everyone asks that – fourth, fifth, sixth, we all ask that,” says Peter.
“It makes me feel like I can talk with Father Seamus. When I first came here, I didn’t know him very well, and I was kind of nervous, but now, I feel I can talk to him because I know him better,” says Alyssa.
The junior chaplains say they believe they are having a positive impact on their school.
“I think the junior chaplains help the school change and develop in a good way. If we don’t change and develop, things will get boring and old after a time. Now, since we’re here, we develop a lot of new things,” says Connor.
“I think we can help by showing that just because you’re a kid, it doesn’t mean you can’t really make a difference. It doesn’t have to be all the teachers,” says Alyssa. “We can show that kids can really make a difference. We don’t have to just follow everyone’s lead. We can be leaders.”