Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)

Mary Anne Palko has been bringing the children of Saint John Bosco Parish to Jesus for over two decades.  Through her dedication to the Ministry of the Children’s Liturgy of the Word, youngsters gain a greater understanding of Christ’s message of hope and more fully appreciate the celebration of Sunday Mass. 

Early Years

Mary Anne was born in Steubenville, OH, and raised in the nearby town of Toronto, OH.  While growing up in Toronto, she attended St. Joseph Church and St. Francis Elementary School.  After graduation from Toronto High School, Mary Anne studied at Bowling Green State University and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education.  She taught for five years in Sandusky Perkins Schools and then for another eleven in Cuyahoga Heights Schools.  While teaching full time in Cuyahoga Heights, Mary Anne obtained a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Kent State University.   Her career has focused mainly on the instruction of children from preschool through second grade.  Mary Anne and her husband Mark, who is Chairman of the Finance Committee at SJB, have been married for 30 years and are parents of two young adult sons, Ryan and Diego.  Mary Anne now serves as a substitute elementary teacher in Cuyahoga Heights Schools.

Children’s Liturgy of the Word – In the Beginning

In the Fall of 1999, SJB’s Director of Religious Education, Carol Polefko, surveyed various parishes in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese regarding their Children’s Liturgy of the Word programs.  Carol presented her findings to Father Dave Liberatore and the Liturgy Committee who agreed that SJB should proceed with similar Sunday morning children’s instruction.  Aware of Mary Anne’s strong background in elementary education and her love for children, Carol and Music Director Norm Cotone asked her to coordinate the Children’s Liturgy of the Word Ministry at SJB.  Mary Anne observed the liturgical instruction offerings for children at nearby parishes and thoroughly reviewed their educational materials.  On the First Sunday of Advent in 2001, Mary Anne led SJB’s inaugural session of the Children’s Liturgy of the Word.

Still Going Strong

Now celebrating its 21st year, the Children’s Liturgy of the Word Ministry at SJB is still going strong.  The instruction is presented on the first and third Sundays of each month during the 11:00 AM Mass.  Families and children gather in the church for the opening rites, which emphasizes the unity of the Sunday assembly.  Following the opening prayer, Mary Anne leads the children to the Activities Center where the youngsters hear the Word of God in a language that they can understand.  Secondary school students who are seeking service hours for Confirmation often present the first or second reading (whichever is deemed more relevant to children) for that Sunday.  Mary Anne then leads the group in singing a Responsorial Psalm and Gospel Acclamation.  This is followed by Mary Anne’s proclamation of the Gospel.  Reflecting on the Lord’s message, Mary Anne and the children share what they heard in their readings and discuss how they may apply it in their daily lives.  “Children are very spiritual, and they bring their own experiences to the discussion,” notes Mary Anne.  “As an instructor, I may ask a question and a child’s answer might lead the discussion in a whole different direction that I hadn’t thought about before.  It’s still related to scripture but it’s just based on their understanding and things that are important to them.  It’s wonderful because we all learn from it!”  

When asked what she enjoys most about her Ministry, Mary Anne reflects, “My favorite part is the Prayers of the Faithful.  Some children pray for their family members, pets, friends, and personal concerns.  To an adult, those prayer intentions may not sound important, but they are to a child.”  In this Ministry, children should trust that their prayer intentions are said in a safe place.  With news of current events surrounding them, war and natural disasters often weigh on children’s minds.  Youngsters bring prayers about those matters to the liturgies as well.

The educational resources used for the Children’s Liturgy originate from highly respected Catholic publishers.  Music for this Ministry is based on Norm Cotone’s arrangements.  As they sing, children are encouraged to use hand-held instruments such as tambourines and triangles.  In preparation for Jesus’ birth, youngsters will learn about the Advent wreath as well as the meanings of Christmas hymns.   

Mary Anne encourages parents and grandparents to bring their young ones to the Children’s Liturgy of the Word until children feel comfortable to attend by themselves.  It is her hope that the Ministry will plant the seeds for adult lives of faith.  “Many of our teenage volunteers started off as young children who participated in this ministry,” Mary Anne reflects.  Mary Anne is grateful for the support of SJB’s Pastors, including Fr. Dave Liberatore, Fr. Larry Jurcak, and Fr. Matt Byrne; Karen Early, a fellow educator and loyal substitute ministry leader; and past and present musical accompanists.  Through the devotion of Mary Anne and SJB’s volunteers and families, the Children’s Liturgy of the Word will remain a vital Ministry for generations to come. 

Submitted by Christine and Bob Martuch