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Families, friends and well-wishers formed a circle of prayer in the sunlight-saturated great room of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Child Development Center in Jefferson City.
“After much prayer and work by so many members of our community, we gather now to bless and dedicate this new center,” said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight.
The new center was set to open the following morning, providing affordable, quality, faith-based childcare for infants and very young children of diocesan employees and of employees of parishes and schools of the diocese.
“Here the young will learn of their Catholic faith and adults will deepen their commitment to live as Christ has taught us,” Bishop McKnight proclaimed at the dedication. “We pray that the Word of God may always echo from its walls.”
Every wall of the building, in fact, is adorned with some reminder of the Reign of God and the intercession of his saints.
At the dedication, Erin Vader Ed.D., diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, proclaimed a reading from the First Letter to the Ephesians:
“... You are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.
“Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
Bishop McKnight stretched out his hands and prayed:
“May all who come here know the presence of Christ, experience the joy of his friendship, and grow in his love.”
He then went into every room in the building, sprinkling holy water onto the walls and fixtures.
Father Stephen Jones, chairman of the center’s board of directors, and Dr. Vader then held ribbon across the room, and Bishop McKnight cut through it with a scissors.
“It’s official now,” Dr. Vader stated as the assembly cheered.
The bishop presented to LeAnn Rockwell, the center’s director, a pewter icon from Rome, depicting Mary and her Immaculate Heart.
“She is our diocesan patroness, and the center is named for her,” he noted.
The bishop thanked Mrs. Rockwell and Dr. Vader for their leadership, “and all the benefactors who made this all possible.”
Dr. Vader capped off a litany of gratitude by thanking Bishop McKnight, “because none of this would have been possible without him saying yes and his support.”
“None of this would be possible without all of us saying yes!” the bishop replied.
“Ready for adventure”
Ann-Sophie McGuire and Paxten Wankum are teachers at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Center.
Ms. Wankum said she’s excited about fostering the kids love for school “and their love for our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Ms. McGuire added: “It’s an amazing opportunity to see the little people of our community and help them learn to love Christ in such an open environment, especially through the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
Ms. McGuire asked for prayers for guidance, success and “the power of the Holy Spirit to help us power through.”
“And for our hearts to be open to these children,” Ms. Wankum added.
One of the center’s primary purposes is helping to attract and retain teachers to work in Catholic schools.
Dr. Vader noted that the scarcity of childcare is a major factor in keeping many good teachers out of the classroom.
Helias Catholic High School faculty members Zachary Rockers and Elizabeth Twyman, who are both parents of very young children, approached Dr. Vader this year about possibly opening an early childhood center for the school’s employees.
The scope of the discussions turned to the need to help Catholic educators throughout the community.
When the fully furnished former Growing Hearts Montessori School became available, generous, anonymous donors stepped forward to help the diocese buy it.
Mrs. Rockwell recently noted that her goal is for the children who “graduate” from Immaculate Heart of Mary be ready to go on to pre-school programs in local grade schools — “for them to be ready for that adventure, and to know that there’s something more for them to do.”
She cited several “non-negotiables” for the Immaculate Heart of Mary Center: “The nurturing, the love, the guidance and the safety of the program, and the growth. You want it to be a happy, safe place for the children to come to.”
“One more benefit”
Opening Day the following morning brought smiles and a few tears, “but the parents got themselves under control very quickly,” Dr. Vader noted.
As of Aug. 14, the center had 16 children registered, with room for up to another 14, depending on the children’s ages.
She said the center currently has enough staff but might have to hire “a few more” people if more people enroll.
“We are very happy and blessed with how well this is going,” she said.
Similar to two Catholic high schools in the diocese, the center has its own board of directors led by Bishop McKnight, with bylaws for the board to follow and Dr. Vader giving oversight on the bishop’s behalf.
Fr. Jones said he’s excited for what the Immaculate Heart of Mary Center provides.
“Having a place like this center, which provides quality childcare and education at an affordable rate, within the diocesan system, is a game-changer in providing some relief for our Catholic school teachers and other diocesan employees,” he said.
“It is one more benefit we can provide in return for the many benefits their ministry gives to the greater community,” he stated.
Dr. Vader said that if the Immaculate Heart of Mary Center is successful, “there may be other opportunities in the diocese for us to replicate this in the diocese.”
Call Dr. Vader at 573-635-9127, for information.