The bus departs Chaminade at 3:30 p.m. for St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Hempstead. About a dozen students on board know that they won't be back until close to six o'clock – won't be home until maybe seven. And that's after a full day of school.
"But when we see those kids," said Benedict Reitzel '20, "we realize that this may be the most important work of our lives."
Ben is one of 95 Chaminade students who teach religion to first- through eighth-graders with the Parish Religious Education Program (PREP). Once a week, PREP volunteers travel to six Long Island parishes, presenting the lessons they've prepared in school. Each PREP class meets daily at Chaminade to discuss grade-school curriculum, share ideas, and evaluate their own performance. Team teaching brings two students into each classroom so they can cover an array of topics and maintain the interest of the children. On this particular week, they discuss sin, free will, and the Church system – roles in the Mass, parishes, and how the assembled community represents the Body of Christ.
Sophomore Harrison Peluso thought, "It's very rewarding to see the fourth graders open up every week. Often times, I think of myself at their age, and it helps me relate to them."
Relatability is something Mary Ann Pellegrino said forms a unique connection between the Chaminade volunteers and their students. The director of religious education at St. Thomas the Apostle lauded their ability to motivate and inspire children.
"They're wonderful role models," she said. "Our kids love coming to class, and they're in awe of their teachers! When the second graders learn about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and then see the Chaminade boys receiving it, they're more confident to go themselves. The teachers are prepared, engaging, and 'real' to the little ones."
Pellegrino believes the Chaminade teachers are living examples of the Stations of the Cross.
"They're modern-day Simons and Veronicas," she explained. "Just as Simon helped Jesus carry his cross, and Veronica offered to Him the veil that would carry His image, the Chaminade teachers show their love for God and want others to know about God."
It may be the only reflection of God these young people see all week. Chaminade student teachers take their roles seriously. They know how their example makes for some of their students' earliest faith formation and understand the impression they leave on seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds. It leaves the teachers with a sense of purpose and meaning. But, they also know their students may seek guidance beyond matters of God – making friends, dealing with a bully at school, or the everyday challenges of growing up.
"I always tell my students that they can ask me anything, even if it doesn't have to do with religion," Ben said. "We're happy to answer any of their questions and want to be a constant presence for them."
Alexander Katimaris '20 reflected, "We do our best to get on their level."
While Chaminade students have been teaching in Long Island parishes since at least the 1950s, PREP more formally organized their efforts in 1976. Mr. Vincent Jeffrey '04 moderates PREP and was a student catechist himself.
"Participating in PREP as a student has everything to do with me being a teacher today," Mr. Jeffrey said. "Now that the roles are reversed, it is incredible to witness the devotion and hard work of my own students in the program."