Phyllis Carney celebrates 50 years as a second grade CCD teacher
As was her usual custom, Phyllis Carney attended Sunday Mass being celebrated by Father Charles Brady, the pastor at St. Mary Church in Neillsville in 1972. She recalled the moment at the end of Mass when announcements were made. “Barbara Kissner, who was the religious education coordinator at the time, announced that they needed someone to teach second grade CCD to prepare children to make their first confession and holy Communion,” said Phyllis. “The announcement entered my mind at that moment and would not leave. The thought persisted and, at the end of Mass, I said to my husband ‘Jim, I have to talk to Barbara. If I volunteer to teach, are you going to be OK with that?’ He told me it would be fine with him.” Phyllis did talk to Barbara, and she said “Yes” to the invitation.
She still remembers that feeling, that call to minister to young people even though more than 50 years have passed. “It was a push from within me—the working of the Holy Spirit,” she recalled. “The Holy Spirit works in amazing ways,” she said. It was only last spring that Phyllis decided to retire from teaching CCD after she celebrated the completion of her 50th first holy Communion class at St. Mary Parish.
Coming to Neillsville
A transplant from Chicago, Phyllis moved to Neillsville in 1969 with her husband and three children and settled on 180 acres of farmland about six miles out of town. In a sense, Phyllis’s husband was returning to his roots because his grandparents, aunts and cousins lived in Neillsville. Shortly after arriving in Neillsville, Phyllis joined St. Mary Parish, where she has remained ever since. Phyllis said she needed to be involved in the parish in some way so that she could become part of the life of the parish. Indeed, she served the parish faithfully in her role as CCD teacher spanning the tenure of five pastors: Father Charles Brady (1970-1974), Father Joseph Henseler (1974-2000), Father Woodrow Pace (2000-2011), Father Varkey Velickakathu (2011-2020), and the current pastor, Father Gregory Michaud.
“One does not teach what one knows, but what one is.”
Phyllis admitted that she was a bit nervous when she entered the classroom full of second graders for the first time. “How am I going to teach a bunch of kids? I mean, they are all 7 to 8 years old. I thought I could handle this age group. But as you walk in you wonder, ‘Am I going to say the right thing?’ But then I realized at that age their minds are like sponges and you just start at the beginning. You talk about believing in God; believing that there is a God who can do anything. Look at the trees, look at the birds, look at what you are seeing, look at you and your mom and dad. God made this all.
Making the Connection
“I would continue explaining the special connection God had with Adam and Eve, Mary and Joseph and that Jesus was His Son who lived with us for a while before He returned to His Father. But Jesus also wanted to remain with us and so He asked us to remember Him in the bread and wine when the priest celebrates Mass.” She reminds her students that Jesus is truly present in bread and wine and is present with us today because God can do anything. She reinforces this teaching by saying,
It looks like bread,
It feels like bread,
It tastes like bread,
But it’s really—
And the kids all yell, “JESUS!”
As Phyllis looks back on her 50 years of preparing youngsters for their first confession and Communion, she hopes that some of her teaching has rubbed off on the kids. “You know it is fun [rewarding] when the kids come back maybe 15 years later and say ‘You were my teacher, I am going to church, we live here.’ And then I was teaching their kids.”
An earlier story in The Catholic Times celebrating Phyllis’s 40 years in the classroom included the following quote from her:
Early on you learn as a teacher that you don’t know what kind of influence you’ll have on someone, what you said or did that made an impact … You can’t put your finger on it but what an exciting feeling you have when you see the kids really make something of themselves and see them stay in the Church, keep the Faith, and even bring their own kids to church as they become parents themselves.
There is a proverb that says, “One does not teach what one knows, but what one is.” This saying is exemplified in the dedication that Phyllis has for her Faith and sharing that Faith with the many students she has had in her classes over a half century in the classroom.
Story and photography by Robert Rogers
Published in the May/June 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine