19 at D.C. parochial school baptized Catholic

In preparation for their baptism, 19 children, ages 5 to 13, take religious instruction at St. Augustine's Catholic School in Northwest Washington.
By Michelle Boorstein
Sunday, April 4, 2010

The topics in Sister Emmanuella Ladipo's class that afternoon were heavy: The purpose of prayer. The nature of grace. Sin.

Then a little hand shot up, followed by a question in a worried tone: But will the water be cold when we get baptized?

The Nigerian nun, a teacher at St. Augustine's Catholic School in Northwest Washington, assured the mostly elementary school students that the water would be warm -- and the impact big.

"What do you get from baptism that you don't get from a swimming pool?" she asked, at first eliciting blank stares. She repeated the question, this time prompting raised hands before she clarified the answer: the washing away of original sin.

And then she dealt with a boy who had wandered from his seat to get a drink without asking and another who was talking with his mouth full of Cheez-Its.

This back-and-forth between such matters as the blood of Christ and raising your hand before going to the restroom has been constant all year at St. Augustine's, where 19 children ages 5 to 13 converted this weekend to Catholicism, the highest number at any school in the Washington archdiocese in recent memory. Before Easter -- the traditional time for Catholics to be baptized, or join the church -- 51 of the school's 186 students were Catholic. Now 70 are.

After the church's battering in recent weeks by a far-flung clergy sex-abuse scandal, that such a large group of children is embracing Catholicism demonstrates the resilience of the faith and how for many its meaning has little to do with Vatican controversies or papal leadership.

The baptisms are a result of a recent push at St. Augustine's and across the country to fortify the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions and to be more open about evangelizing. The goal isn't necessarily conversion, although many of the students come from families that are Christian mostly in name only. The idea is to teach children, particularly needy ones, a richly ritualized faith that they can feel close to and be empowered by. Not to mention saving some souls along the way.

Inner-city parochial schools, many of which have been majority non-Catholic for decades, are fertile ground for such a push.

In the past few years, St. Augustine's began holding weekly instead of monthly Masses and adding prayers to other parts of the daily routine. Statues of the Virgin Mary--who is particularly central to Catholicism--were placed in each room. And three years ago, St. Augustine's, called "the mother church" for Washington's black Catholics, brought in three African nuns in traditional habits to lead the school, teach and infuse the building with a Catholic spirit.

The outcome is clear among this gaggle of children who are making spiritual decisions and commitments unfamiliar to many adults. They articulate spiritual longings not typically associated with people whose feet barely reach the floor when they sit in the pews.

The way Catholics cross themselves "makes me feel like I'm not just talking to one person. I'm talking to Jesus, God and the Holy Ghost. It's like all the spirits are listening to me," said Lello Negera, a sprite of a sixth-grader whose father was tortured in Ethiopia and developed a skepticism about organized religion. "When I come out of Catholic Church service," she said, "I feel powerful."

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