Growing preschool at Holy Cross, Champaign, to get a new building

By: By Jennifer Willems

CHAMPAIGN — Anything is possible when you ask the Blessed Mother for help, gather a group of “angels” and entrust everything to the Good Shepherd.

At Holy Cross School, doing that has made it possible to open the first Catholic preschool in Champaign-Urbana. The program started quietly last year with 17 3- and 4-year-olds and has grown to 46 pupils this year.

Two rooms at Holy Cross School have been dedicated to the preschool, but the good news doesn’t stop there. Before the year is out, the preschool will move into a building across the street that was purchased by a group of parishioners and is being renovated specifically with the preschool in mind.

“I give credit to the Blessed Mother for that,” said Father David Sajdak, SDB, pastor. “Even before I came, the owner said the parish was meant to get the building.”

The finance council said the parish was in no position to take on another debt, but they didn’t count on the power of prayer.

“I said, ‘Blessed Mother, if this is meant to be you have to claim that building for our kids and you have to send me someone because we just can’t afford it,'” Father Dave told The Catholic Post.

Parishioner John May came forward and said, “Father, this is the way to go. I’ll make this happen.”

Father Dave said May not only purchased the building but lined up people and is raising the funds needed to retire the debt. It will be given to the parish as a gift as soon as the renovations are complete.

“Holy Cross has a kind of mantra: ‘It’s all about family,'” said principal Christine Ellis. “Parishioners are doing the electrical and the plumbing — even the architect who is drawing up the plans, Bob Kapolnek, is a parishioner.”

While last year’s program was pretty traditional at two days a week for the 3-year-olds and a three-day or five-day option for the 4-year-olds with no extended care, Ellis said Holy Cross will be have a much more flexible schedule this year.

“We’re offering half-day or full-day plus extended care,” she said.
In addition, Holy Cross will be using the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as the basis for the program. Taking a Montessori approach to instruction and faith formation, it emphasizes “quiet contemplation and enjoyment of God,” according to Ellis, who completed her training this summer.

“The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd understands how a child learns and seeks to draw out their understanding of faith exactly in the way they would understand it best,” said Robin Rentschler, who was the preschool teacher last year and will be the lead teacher this year. “It’s through play and experience that they begin to experience God.”

She noted that adults tend to impose their understanding of faith on children, who already have it. “The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is good at drawing it out.”

Children will see presentations that are about the life of Jesus, the Kingdom of God, the Mass and stories from the Bible and then choose the materials they want to work with. The idea is whatever they choose speaks to them in some way and they are given the freedom to explore them, Rentschler explained.

Not only does it cause the children to slow down and focus, but the program recognizes that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the ultimate lover of our souls, she said.

“I’ve been involved with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd since I was ordained,” Father Dave said. “I was amazed at how these little ones were so in tune. I would say it’s a minor miracle to get 12 4-year-olds in a room, quietly engaged for an hour-and-a-half.”

There are a number of places in central Illinois where the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is used and training has taken place each summer. The most recent session took place at Epiphany Parish in Normal.

Father Dave said it is also amazing to see how the catechists are on fire when they return from training, because it’s like they’re hearing the parables for the first time.

The preschool will incorporate as much of the atrium as possible. The parish has offered the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd as part of its religious formation program outside of school hours, he said.

“I’m excited. I give Chris Ellis the credit,” he said. “She put it together last year. And Robin Rentschler, Providence sent her to us. She started the preschool in Philo.”

Catechesis of the Good Shepherd was developed in Rome by Sofia Cavaletti, a Scripture scholar, and Gianna Gobbi. For more information, look for Holy Cross Catholic Church on Facebook or visit

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