Alexis Ramsook knows what it’s like to grow distant from her faith. “I lost my way a little,” during and after her college years, the 31-yearold Freeport native recalled. So she feels a special connection to the young people she now teaches in Our Holy Redeemer Parish’s two-year high school religious education program.
The program is designed for Catholic teens who “have never really had any kind of religious education,” she explained. “Most of them were baptized,” and a few made their first Communion, but most did not, and none had received the sacrament of Confirmation.
Now, she said, many of their parents, seeing the challenges their children are facing in their teen years, are motivated to try to give them religion, believing it will “help make them better people” as they mature into adulthood.
Alexis credits Father Douglas Arcoleo, pastor of Our Holy Redeemer Parish, with “really building up the parish,” and, in the process, “making people more aware of how important it is” to give their children a grounding in their faith.
The two-year program culminates with the students receiving the sacraments – first Communion, if they have not already done so, then confirmation. But first comes a year of faith formation, then a year of preparation for the sacraments.
Most of the students “are really starting at the beginning,” Alexis explained. She introduces the Our Father and Hail Mary, opening and closing each class with them, and encourages the students to practice them at home. “Eventually, I want to get them to the rosary,” she says.
Alexis is in her third year teaching in this program, and her fifth year overall as a catechist, having previously taught sixth-and seventh-graders for two years at St. Theresa of Avila Parish in Summit, N.J., when she lived there. She has seen one class at Our Holy Redeemer through its faith formation and sacramental preparation years, and will now stay with her current six students through both years as well, until they receive the sacraments.
Because many of them attend at their parents’ behest, they don’t always want to be there at first – something Alexis can relate to. “I was always the rebellious one in my family” growing up, she said – one reason why her parents sent her to Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, where, she says, they knew she would get “more structure.
“I started in the (Brother Fox) Latin School,” the middle school at Kellenberg, she remembered. “It was a challenge at first – strict, and I wasn’t used to that. But I grew to love it,” and she is grateful that Kellenberg, along with her parents, “planted the seeds” that would later draw her back to a much more active faith life. And that is what she hopes to do for her students – plant the seeds of faith that will guide their lives in the years to come.
“I try to make it fun,” she said, utilizing various games like a Bible trivia game she facilitates with her iPad. And she occasionally prints out some “Youth Group Discussion” guides available online, to get the students more involved.
“They are pretty open, they communicate and give a lot of feedback,” she said. And, of course, given their age, the students “question everything” regarding Church teaching – “pre-marital sex, drinking, going to Mass on Sunday – especially as they get more comfortable” with the class.
“I don’t always feel I have all the answers,” Alexis acknowledges, but Father Arcoleo visits the class regularly, and Alexis encourages the students to raise these questions with him.
In addition, she uses the opportunity to teach by example.
“I’ve been through it, so I can relate” to her students’ questioning, she says. “I stopped going to church for a long time,” returning when she was living and working in New Jersey and a colleague recommended St. Theresa of Avila Parish.
“She brought me back,” Alexis says of St. Theresa. Her story of how that parish’s welcome drew her back to a life of faith should offer encouragement to Catholics across Long Island, as Bishop Murphy calls us, during this Year of Faith, to become involved in inviting our less active Catholic sisters and brothers to “belong more deeply” to Christ and His Church.
Alexis explained how – after a particularly long and difficult day at work – she attended a gathering of St. Theresa of Avila’s “welcoming committee” and, as she entered the room, the group’s leader “reached out and welcomed me.” She was “26 or 27” years old at the time, she said, and “I just felt such a peace then, a peace and wholeness I had never felt before.
“I felt God wrapping his arms around me.”
Engaged to be married next May – to another Kellenberg graduate, although they did not know each other during high school – Alexis also uses her “chaste” relationship with her fiancé as an example to her students.
“It helps the girls to understand that you don’t have to have pre-marital sex to get a guy to love you,” she said. “A lot of the girls feel pressured,” among the many kinds of peer pressure that can make it hard for teens to live and to express their faith.
“It’s not cool to talk about their religion” among their peers, she noted, so she sometimes points out celebrities and athletes – like football star Tim Tebow and singer Taylor Swift – as popular public figures who lead by example in proclaiming their Christian faith.
Alexis did note that three sisters who she has taught – and who are all now active in various volunteer ministries at Our Holy Redeemer – are “very open” about proclaiming their faith, “posting things on Facebook about Jesus.”
Her own faith has undoubtedly been strengthened through teaching others, Alexis observes.
“We all kind of grow together” in the faith, she said of herself and her students. “I’m able to learn what I have to teach them. They ask so many questions – and they’re good questions – so I have to research and learn more myself.” She reads the Bible more, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church – “a great book,” Alexis emphasized, that helps her immensely in “teaching many of the amazing things the Church has to offer and to teach us.”
Photography by Gregory Shemitz