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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Bob Cowell

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: When did you join Our Lady of Perpetual Help?

Bob: I joined Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) when we moved from Chicago  to Glenview twenty years ago.  OLPH is a very large parish, and I found it to be somewhat cold and impersonal when I joined.  I didn’t know anyone in the parish.   I responded to a bulletin plea for catechists and volunteered to teach in the Religious Education program.  It turned out that this was a way to get to know some people in the parish and to make the parish feel “smaller” and more accessible.

Gordon: What impact has Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) had on your spiritual life?

Bob: OLPH has had a positive impact on my spiritual life in a number of ways.  The most significant way has been through my involvement as a catechist in our SPRED program, which has helped me to become a more contemplative and (I hope) loving person. 

Because SPRED is based on a small community of adult catechists growing together in faith, I have gotten to know others who have supported me on my faith journey.  Also, through my work as a Religious Education catechist, I came to have a greater understanding of scripture as I prepared lessons for my students.  OLPH further has deepened my faith by offering adult education sessions that have given me insights into how I can become a less judgmental, more compassionate person.  I’ve also benefited from attending mass at OLPH, as well as Taize services which feature scripture, silence, and contemplative music and always touch my soul.

Gordon: You serve as a Leader Catechist for the OLPH SPRED Ministry Could you explain to our readers who may be interested in serving as a catechist for those with special needs what a Leader Catechist is, your responsibilities, and the required training?

Bob: There are three leadership positions in each SPRED group of eight catechists:  Leader Catechist, Activity Catechist, and Parish Chairperson.  The Leader Catechist is responsible for the catechesis of the catechists and of our friends with disabilities (“Friends”).  The SPRED model of catechesis is based on identifying and sharing experiences of Spirit in our lives, not on teaching doctrine. 

The Leader Catechist conducts each catechist preparation session, attended by only the adult catechists; this involves relating the theme of the session to liturgy, scripture, and experience by using symbol, words, music, and gestures.   The Leader Catechist uses this same approach in the total community sessions with our Friends.  As part of both the catechist preparation and total community sessions, the Leader Catechist takes the hands of each person, makes eye contact, and speaks a simple spiritual message to the person.  This is a powerful, spirit-filled moment, where we all feel the presence of God in our midst.

The Leader Catechist is also responsible for organizing SPRED masses, which include modifications that help our Friends with disabilities to participate meaningfully in the mass.  At OLPH, we are fortunate to have great support from our pastor and parish staff, and we have three SPRED masses each year, including a joyful First Communion mass in May.  

To become a Leader Catechist, a person must attend five training sessions.  These sessions are offered on Saturday afternoons twice a year.  I want to emphasize, however, that only one training session is required for a “regular” SPRED catechist.

Gordon: Serving as a catechist to those with special needs is a in some ways a response to St, Mark’s reminder to  'Love your neighbor as yourself. " There is no commandment   greater than these.” Could you comment on the love that SPRED catechists have for those they help (called Friends) and the love that Friends return to their catechists?

Bob: As you suggest, the loving relationship between catechists and Friends is a reciprocal one.  In SPRED, each Friend has his or her own catechist, and these relationships typically last for at least several years.  Our Friends come to know and trust their catechists during this time, although not all of our Friends can verbalize their feelings.  Catechists show love to their Friends by their attention to and care of their Friends during our total community sessions and SPRED masses and by communicating regularly with their Friends’ parents.  Most catechists become quite attached to their Friends.

Gordon: You work at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview and teach a class called ESL Study Support.  Could you explain to our readers what ESL Study Support is and how it helps those who attend the program?

Bob: I am a resource for students in our school’s English Language Learners program.  Most of my students are immigrants who came to the U.S. in middle school or high school.  I work with them individually or in small groups to help them with their assignments in all subject areas.  I also help my students become acclimated and comfortable in our big American high school.

Gordon: We deeply appreciate and applaud your commitment to helping people with special needs and to the immigrants in your community.


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