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Mary Uttecht Helps Youth Grow in Knowing Who Jesus Is

“My sister, Linda, was teaching religious education at

St. Joseph Parish, Galloway and she said to me, ‘You should teach CCD … you would be so good at it … you should try it.’” Mary said. “So, I thought, ‘Yes, I could try it.’”

This invitation by Mary’s sister and Mary’s acceptance and openness to respond began a journey of sharing her Faith with young people. This was something she had never done before, outside her immediate family. As she embarked on this new adventure, she discovered that she really enjoyed working with kids.

This initial enthusiasm prompted her to do more. Mary wanted to engage young people in the life of the Church beyond the CCD program, so she organized the St. Joseph Parish Youth Group in 2000. She also wanted to involve her own children, who were 10 and 12 at the time, in parish activities.

Mary traveled to the Holy Cross Diocesan Center in La Crosse to attend meetings and programs for youth ministers designed to help them be more effective teachers and mentors. It was at such a meeting that she was reminded of World Youth Day (WYD), an event that she recalled her youngest brother attending when it was held in Denver in 1993.

Mary with Father Augustine “Gus” Bentil

WYD was initiated by Pope St. John Paul II in 1985 and grew out of the Light-Life Movement in Poland in the 1960s. This is an event where young people from all over the world gather to celebrate their Catholic Faith.

World Youth Day was a turning point in my Faith life. That experience made me want to do even more with youth in my parish and in the diocese.

So, is it any wonder that, in 1990, Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “On the occasion of this World Youth Day, I want therefore to invite you all to a new discovery of the Church and of your mission in the Church, as young people.” He goes on to quote Christifideles Laici. “The Church has so much to talk about with youth and youth have so much to share with the Church. This mutual dialogue, by taking place with great cordiality, clarity and courage … will be a source of richness and youthfulness for the Church.” (n. 46)

Students in the summer camp Bible program return to the classroom following an outdoor session of fun games.

Upon learning that the 2002 WYD was being held in nearby Toronto, Canada, Mary completed a fundraising program within her parish community to help defray the cost. Mary, Pat and Chris Kulas and seven youth attended WYD. “This was a turning point in my own Faith life,” Mary said. “Because, my own Faith grew immensely from just being with Pope St. John Paul II. That experience made me want to do even more with youth in my parish and in the diocese.”

Mary’s passion and commitment were further enhanced by working with Chris Stefanik, the former director of youth ministry for the Diocese of La Crosse, on various youth ministry programs. He brought a dynamism to his programs that were attractive to young people. Adventure Camp, held in Ashland, was an example of a program that especially appealed to youth and, in fact, also enhanced Mary’s personal Faith life.

To this day, Mary’s zeal for working with youth continues. She is now the director of religious education at St. Joseph Parish and is responsible for all the education programs within the parish. She credits having this position to Father Augustine “Gus” Bentil, pastor of St. Joseph Parish. Father Gus said, “Mary is the backbone of our Religious Education Program in the parish. She is very reliable and dependable. She is always there for the parish. She is very flexible in her approach to things and demonstrates an important leadership style. People see her commitment to education and are willing to follow her lead.”

Mary gives us an example of a person who has answered the call to be an active disciple of Jesus. Often the call to become involved comes from a friend, a priest or perhaps a family member, as in Mary’s case, who sees the talent and gifts a person has to offer. Other times, the call may come from within the person through the action of the Holy Spirit; often it is a combination of both.

Everyone has the opportunity to become more fully engaged in the life of the Church. These opportunities can be found in one’s own parish: perhaps visiting the homebound, reading the Scriptures at Mass, teaching religion to young people, serving at Mass, leading programs for senior citizens—the list goes on. There are opportunities for everyone. Laity involvement lends vibrance to the fabric of the parish. And it can lead to a sense of personal enrichment and a closer bonding with Our Lord. Just ask Mary.

Story and photography by Robert Rogers
Published in the March Catholic Life issue

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