NJ students step forward to join Catholic Church

St. Mary Magdalen Regional School in Millville, N.J. will finish this academic year with more than a dozen additional Catholic students – but not because of a surge in enrollment.

The increase is due to 13 of the school’s 29 non-Catholic students joining the Catholic Church.

“It is very unusual,” said Sister Rosa Maria Ojeda, the principal. “Usually we have two or three, or at most four.”

It’s too soon to know if this year’s sharp increase in conversions is the beginning of a trend or is just coincidental. Sister Rosa Maria said there is no formal program to encourage the conversions. It is up to the students and their parents to come forward and make the request.

Mary Boyle, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Camden, said she does not have statistics yet for this year, but she isn’t aware of any pattern of increase in the number of non-Catholic students joining the faith.

“Our schools certainly do make an effort to work on that,” she said. “We want them planting seeds but not proselytizing.”

She noted that the diocese views such conversions as a parish event rather than as a school event.

All 182 St. Mary Magdalen students – whatever their faith – receive the same religious instruction as part of the school day. For the non-Catholics who wish to convert, once they get their parents’ approval, one of the sisters works with them individually for an hour after school once or twice a week to prepare.

Six of the students converting this year had already been baptized in another faith. In such cases the process is a profession of faith – a ceremony that includes reciting the Apostles’ Creed – rather than the actual pouring of water and anointing with oil.

Some of the baptisms or professions of faith took place in church after Sunday Mass, while others took place after the weekly Mass in school.

For Steven and Beth Alcorn, it as an easy decision to have their son, Nicholas Alcorn, baptized a Catholic at the end of January even though both of them are Methodists.

Nicholas is in the pre-kindergarten class, while his sister Jordan Caez is in eighth grade at St. Mary Magdalen and his sister Jasmine Caez graduated from the school two years ago. Both of the sisters were baptized Catholic, their father’s religion.

From the years of her daughters’ education there, Beth Alcorn said, she knew that “you become a family within the school. And it’s nice to be able to celebrate each one of these steps with the entire classroom almost as a family separate from your family at home.”

For Dana Durham, it wasn’t her parents, Margaret and Ronald, who decided she would become a Catholic. It was Dana herself.

Mr. and Mrs. Durham are both Presbyterian, and it was the quality of the education that prompted them to send their two daughters to St. Mary Magdalen. Although Dana and her older sister, Emma, were baptized at birth in the Presbyterian Church, their parents believed it was up to the girls to choose their religion once they were old enough.

Eighth-grader Emma remains a Presbyterian, although she plans to go to Our Lady of Mercy Academy next year.

Dana, on the other hand, never wavered about converting.

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“Dana – from the time she was a little girl – felt that’s where she belonged,” Margaret Durham said. But the parents wanted to be sure it wasn’t just a case of peer pressure – or peer envy.

“That’s why we held her back,” Mrs. Durham said. “In second grade when all the girls got First Communion, it was a huge deal with the dresses and all. And we felt that that wasn’t the right time to allow her, because we didn’t want her to feel like she just wanted to fit in or she just wanted the dress. We wanted her to be educated and to know when she was personally ready.”

The Durhams never set an age for making a decision about converting. The parents told the girls that when they were ready, they should speak with their teacher and the pastor. Margaret Durham said they told their daughters, “When you’re adult enough to go talk to them, we feel you’re old enough to make your own decision.”

For Dana that time arrived this year. Right after Christmas, her mother said, “She came home one day and said ‘I went and spoke with Sister. I’ve decided it’s time.’” So in February after a regular Friday Mass in the school, Dana made her profession of faith and became a Catholic.

Baptism for Emily and Isabel Kefer took place after a Sunday Mass in February. Emily is in first grade, and Isabel is three years old. The Kefers are relatively new to the area and this is Emily’s first year at St. Mary Magdalen.

Richard Kefer, a Catholic, and his wife, Si, a Buddhist, had talked about having their daughters baptized. Emily started learning about religion at school, he said, and “finally when she asked about it, it was time to do something.”

Some of Emily’s classmates came to the Mass and stayed for Emily’s baptism. It’s a “very supportive community,” her father said.

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Joanne Sampson echoes that thought, describing the school as “a big family. The whole congregation is somewhat close.”

An Episcopalian, she has been raising her granddaughter, Trinity Cain, since her son died several years ago. This school year she enrolled Trinity at St. Mary Magdalen and the fifth-grader has made her profession of faith as a Catholic. Joanne Sampson herself is now taking classes to become a Catholic.

A recurring theme for the parents of the new Catholics is that the warmth and educational quality of the school, its mission, and especially the five sisters – members of the Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary – were all part of the decision.

“I really truly feel that the whole reason that the children find their way is because of the sisters at our school,” said parent Margaret Durham. “They’re astonishing in their faith and their trust and their ability to motivate people. … They are so kind and so gentle and so loving, and they’ve just made these children feel special.”

Sister Rosa Maria is modest about the nuns’ role, saying simply, “We’re very happy and proud of our children.”

Printed with permission from the Catholic Star Herald, newspaper for the Diocese of Camden, N.J.