CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
The convoy composed of crossover SUVs, minivans and costumed kids travelled from St. Paul the Apostle to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Racine last summer. Inside the vehicles, parents and volunteers transported props, backdrops and performers for the play, “Go Go Jonah.”
For Eli, who was 5 years old at the time of the performance, the best part about playing the evil Ninevite king “Was hearing my brother Nikos (aged 11 and cast as Jonah) being called a buckethead during the musical and hearing everyone laugh.”
Last year, Eli and 30 other kids participated in the inaugural three-week summer musical program run by St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Racine. The kids aged 5-14 came from six different parishes, some with no church affiliation, and represented five area schools.
The program is the brainchild of Julie VanMatre. “I started working with kids at St. Joseph Parish, during family Mass,” she said, “and I thought, wouldn’t it be neat to have a musical where the kids made all their own props, learned the acting roles, and at the same time learned the story behind it?”
VanMatre pitched this idea to Amy Wallschlaeger, the Director of Christian Formation at St Paul the Apostle Parish, who agreed that a summer Christian musical would be a great way to engage the kids’ creativity and provide an opportunity to learn about the faith. With a dance degree and four years of experience running a school drama club, Wallschlaeger was the perfect parish director for the project, and VanMatre’s enthusiasm convinced her of its promise.
“I had met all of these great kids and I felt like there needed to be an outlet for the creativity that I was seeing. I figured they were not alone,” VanMatre said. “I just thought if this program works — since last year was our first year — that this could be something that we could grow on.”
Like many kid participants, Nikos, who played Jonah last year, was excited to be involved in a play; it sounded interesting, “plus my mom said I was doing it.”
The musical was a hit with parents and kids alike. Nikos and Eli’s mother, Michelle, said, “This is something I have always wanted for my boys, but it wasn’t available in our school. I enjoy seeing the fun and excitement in their eyes when they see how much other people enjoy and appreciate their hard work.”
By the end of the three weeks last year, “It wasn’t just a musical to them,” VanMatre said. “We designed the program not that it would just be fun, but we wanted to sneak in the Bible.”
She and Wallschlaeger employ the help of volunteers to supervise the kids constructing props, and local directors of religious education give presentations about the Bible stories featured in the musical. Veggie Tales and Christian comedians join the program via video clips, so that the kids learn “how the stories connect to their own lives,” Wallschlaeger said.
Scott Weidner, a 10-year-old participant in last year’s show, said, “I enjoyed making new friends and we ended up having a lot in common with each other, like loving God and rollercoasters.” Singing in the production, “taught me about how our faith used to be and it helped me learn about how there was a struggle to thrive in faith and that people can change when God is with them and he is all forgiving and merciful.”
Being involved with the musical last year, Nikos learned, “that even if you turn away from God, you can still be his child.” Alise, a 9-year-old who loved singing, learned, “that God does not want us to ever give up.”
“We both feel that each kid needs to shine a little bit so we look for parts for kids or we make up parts for kids,” VanMatre said. “A couple of kids last year told me that they wanted to try acting, but they were a little afraid to do it in their school. But here it is such a different program.”
This year’s performance, Fish Tales, features three separate stories from Christ’s life. Songs like “Fish Sandwiches” are a crowd and cast favorite, and Christian commercials written by VanMatre and filmed by the kids in the program will show between sections.
“I almost cried last year because they did such a good job. It just renews your faith and it gives you a spark to do more things with kids,” VanMatre said.
Working on the musical is not only fun and enriching for those performing, but also for the volunteers and directors, Wallschlaeger said. “It brings me closer to my faith seeing how the Holy Spirit is working in these kids.”
Performances will be at 7 p.m. Aug. 17 at St. Paul the Apostle Church, and 2 p.m. Aug. 18 at St. Joseph Church