Last year was a very difficult one for Rita Hastilow and Broadford Uniting Church but out of immense loss has emerged the unexpected blessing of a thriving children’s ministry.
In February 2017 Rita’s beloved aunt, Ann Blackwell, succumbed to cancer only a matter of months after she was diagnosed. Then in November Rita’s mother also died from cancer following a long battle.
“Mum kept her illness largely private,” Rita said.
“The loss of two close relatives in one year was really traumatic for us as a family.”
It was also devastating for Broadford Uniting Church in central Victoria.
With no members under the age of 60 and drawing a congregation of only three people on some Sundays, the struggling church had to cope with the loss of two of its most devoted and pivotal members.
“Both Mum and my aunt had really poured their heart and soul into keeping the little church going,” Rita said.
“I felt really sad we weren’t going to have a connection with the church anymore after all the hard work that Mum and Annie had put in.”
However, during the time of grieving Rita began discovering a deeper sense of faith.
“I think for 40 years I took an upbringing with faith for granted,” Rita said.
“I definitely wasn’t a regular churchgoer when Mum was still here. I wasn’t someone who prioritised God in my life.”
So Rita made a decision.
“I spoke to some of my cousins. We had all been Sunday school kids under my mum, so we decided that we would love to help out the church by having a go at starting a Sunday school,” she said.
“It just kinda grew from there.”
Now every fortnight at Broadford Uniting Church a recording of Standing on the Promise of God by Alan Jackson sounds at the start of the service to signal that Sunday school will be in session.
Typically about 12 Sunday school members, ranging in age from two to 10, sit in the church for the first part of the service to hear a children’s story and take part in singing.
The children have also taught songs to elderly members of the congregation, such as sisters Nola and June who are both in their 90s.
“Nola and June light up having the little kids present in the church; it’s just the most heart-warming thing,” Rita said.
“The joy it brings to the congregation is worth every single minute of planning and time we put in.”
After the children go to their dedicated Sunday school area Rita conducts the sessions along with her cousin Heidi Hinchcliffe and their respective teenage daughters, Lily and Breanna.
“I just love children, it’s one thing I inherited off my mum – she looked after kids her whole life,” Rita said.
Rita, who spent 12 years writing behavioural plans for primary school aged children, prepares the lessons with Heidi in consultation with the church elders.
“Our focus is including those really good solid morals along with the Sunday school program,” Rita said.
“We have an emphasis on kindness, on empathy and learning our manners.”
An example of how the Sunday school encourages this is by having a wall where children are encouraged to write or draw on Post-it notes, stories that show them or others being kind.
In their small country town, word about the Sunday school, which now has a full enrolment of 18 children, has got out.
Parents who haven’t had a church connection or don’t want one for themselves have begun bringing their children.
“It’s not about us dragging kids in kicking and screaming, that’s not what it’s about,” Rita said.
“It’s about when I got approached by a mum down the street last week and she said ‘my daughters would really enjoy that’.
“We’re just keeping the door open and praying that the word spreads, so anyone who needs or wants to be there can find their way.”
Broadford Uniting Church chairperson and secretary Annette Zolnierczyk said the Sunday school heralded a “new lease of life” for the congregation.
“It is a great feeling to have the sound of children back in the church, and we thank Rita and the girls for their enthusiasm, skills and commitment,” Annette said.
Rita said the Sunday school has been important to her family.
“There’s a connection to Mum for my daughter Lily and me to share in our grieving process,” Rita said.
“I’m so grateful they’ve allowed us to implement this at the church because it’s therapeutic for everyone involved.
“I feel Sunday school has risen out of all that tragedy. Every time I look at a photo of our Sunday school kids, it is connected to the loss of Mum and Annie in a way that warms our family’s heart.
“I know that they are looking down on us and I know the joy that it’s bringing them.”