Love of God, ready smiles equip new Moline directors of religious education

Anabel Torres and Yuliana Avalos make preparations for the beginning of faith formation classes at St. Mary Parish in Moline. They are among hundreds of religious educators across the Diocese of Peoria who will be honored this weekend for Catechetical Sunday. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

MOLINE — Yuliana Avalos and Anabel Torres may be brand new co-directors of religious education at St. Mary Parish, but they already have two of the most valuable tools needed to spread the faith.

One is their passionate love of God.

The other is a ready smile.

“I always knew that God loved me because my parents told me. I think it’s also important for these kids to know that and for them to see it in us as a testimony of life,” said Avalos, 26.

“If they see you happy and smiling and lovable, they’re going to think, ‘I want to be like that,’” she told The Catholic Post.

“It’s really important to have them connect and love God above everything, and then tell their parents, ‘Mom and Dad, this is what I’m learning’ and help them feel motivated and encouraged to come,” said Torres, 25.

They are among the hundreds of people who are involved in faith formation around the Diocese of Peoria – and thousands more throughout the United States – whose ministry is being celebrated this weekend for Catechetical Sunday. This year’s theme is “Enlisting Witnesses for Jesus Christ.”

COMPLEMENTARY GIFTS

Father Antonio Dittmer, pastor, said the program at St. Mary is unique in that all of the 220 students are Hispanic.

Taking inspiration from Our Lady of Guadalupe, Anabel Torres and Yuliana Avalos are prepared for their first year as co-directors of religious education at St. Mary Parish in Moline, where all of the 220 students are Hispanic. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

“I would say the majority of the parents were born in Mexico,” he explained. “It’s different when you are raised in a very Catholic country like Mexico and then you come here and you’re trying to raise your kids up to be really good Catholics, but not many speak your language – sometimes not even in the church.”

Avalos and Torres are the daughters of Mexican immigrants and Avalos was born in Mexico, so they understand the family dynamics of their students. Because they are also able to relate to and communicate with the parents, the children can focus completely on their faith formation instead of doubling as translators.

The program at St. Mary serves students in first grade through eighth grade, with classes on Wednesday evening for those in their first year of study for First Communion and the students who are “in between” sacraments. Students who are in their second year of study for First Communion or in their first or second year of preparation for confirmation meet on Sunday mornings and then attend Mass with their parents.

Torres, who has some teaching experience in religious education, calls Avalos “the organizer.” They use their complementary gifts to bring out the best in each other and the young people with whom they work.

FULL OF LOVE FOR LORD

They’ve known each other since their days at Moline High School, but the women took different paths to the parish ministry they’re doing now.

“My religious education was in Mexico,” Avalos said, “so I didn’t have the knowledge of the way religious education is done here in the United States. In Mexico it’s a little bit faster paced. . . . But it didn’t really give me an experience of God.”

Her “God moment” came during a retreat when she was 16. She admits to resisting the retreat, claiming she had to work, but God had other plans.

“Finally my mother said, ‘Take me and if you want to stay you can,’” Avalos recalled. “They prayed and they sang and the Holy Spirit just took over. That was it for me.”

Torres came by way of the choir. She went through the same Kerygma retreat program as Avalos and their mothers.

Torres remains involved in the choir and both are part of a new retreat program, Conquistando las Naciones para Cristo (Conquering the Nations for Christ), and the charismatic renewal group at St. Mary.

“I saw a goodness in both of them and a real sincere love for the Lord, but also a desire to share that love with others,” Father Dittmer told The Post.

“They’re just so kind and they love the Lord and they’re positive. They want people to know Jesus and to love Jesus,” he said. “They are so refreshing and fun to work with.”

And they all agree on what the bottom line is, he said.

“Christ is the center and catechesis is about bringing it to (the children’s) level, enculturating that into their lives and that of their moms and dads, and preparing them to be the people God wants them to be. That’s really the goal,” according to Father Dittmer.

“The bottom line is the salvation of souls. We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure that our young people hear the message of Jesus Christ,” he said.

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