The founders of Growing with the Saints, sisters Melissa Kaiser, Susan Lawson and Maryalice Beach, didn’t intend to start their own publishing company. They simply wanted their children to have something of what they’d learned from their mom growing up.
Their mother, Margaret Windle, was an author and a poet. She’d taught her children the catechism and lives of the saints with original songs, stories and poems.
Now moms themselves, the three sisters realized that many Catholic religious education programs are long on bookwork and short on engaging activities. In particular, they noticed that many parishes, lacking resources, tried to adapt Protestant Vacation Bible School products to their parish programs by brushing a “gloss” of Catholic identity over them. This seemed the perfect area in which to share their mother’s work with a wider audience, and bring something new to Catholic education.
Things fell into place so well that by 2016, the sisters had formed “Growing with the Saints” – a collection of five different Vacation Bible School programs, all based in the same creative yet solid formation they’d received from their mother.
Each program includes music, a DVD to demonstrate the movements that go with the songs, curricula, stories, skits, and plans for snacks and crafts for the week. The curricula are detailed enough so that parish volunteers can stay on track, and flexible enough so that each parish can customize the program for its own needs. Most programs include time for Eucharistic adoration. The last day always includes a Mass, but some parishes add daily Mass as well.
As the Fatima centennial anniversary approached, requests started coming in for a VBS program dedicated to Our Lady. The team wanted to oblige, but they didn’t see how they could get the funding in time for the centennial.
Our Lady took care of that, though, through a Massachusetts fan of “Growing with the Saints,” who connected the sisters with the Family Rosary Crusade. Following in the footsteps of their founder, Servant of God Fr. Patrick Peyton, CSC (who spent decades encouraging people to pray a nightly family rosary), the Crusade was seeking a personal, parish-based approach to encourage devotion to Mary and the rosary.
“Tracking Mary” is the result of the two groups’ collaboration.
It is a Catholic VBS program that focuses on the rosary, and is designed to help campers see the prayers of the rosary from a new angle. “Tracking Mary” also explores several Church-approved Marian apparitions: Fatima, Lourdes, Guadalupe, Knock, and Mount Carmel.
When I spoke with Lawson, I asked why they chose to include the silent apparition at Knock, where Mary simply appeared as part of a tableau with St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, angels, and Jesus represented by a lamb, but delivered no message.
She explained that a pastor who has been a source of encouragement and ideas for them specially requested Knock’s inclusion, because it is one of his favorite apparitions. Later, when they began to work with the Family Rosary Crusade, they discovered that Knock had also been Fr. Peyton’s favorite apparition and that he’d visited the shrine during his childhood in Ireland. It was almost as if Fr. Peyton were interceding for their project from the very start.
Lawson believes all of the Marian apparitions are especially important now. Not only for the Fatima anniversary, but because we live in a world “fighting a World War III piecemeal,” as Pope Francis says, and also in a nation where Catholic beliefs are under siege. Yet when Mary appears, she unifies the Church and encourages us to pray and fast for our neighbors. She gives us gifts like the rosary and the scapular to help us endure times of hardship, and she reminds us of the promise of life everlasting in Heaven with her son.
The family rosary, Lawson said, isn’t just some relic from past decades when the Church was stronger and Catholic culture more prominent in the public square. It’s something families need today, to strengthen their faith, especially when the world challenges it so.
The innovative women behind “Growing with the Saints” are also carrying out the mission given to American catechists by Mary during another of her visits: Our Lady of Good Help in Wisconsin. In that apparition, Mary said, “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation. Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing. I will help you.”