American girls seeking out role models to emulate are in something of a bind these days.
Everywhere they turn, their impressionable eyes find young women who flout the traditional feminine virtues. Qualities like modesty, morality and manners are openly scorned while purity of heart and gentleness of speech seem to have moved from the endangered list to near extinction. Everyone, it seems, is out to show that she’s “her own woman” and nobody’s fool.
Some of the most jaded trendsetters, highly successful in the world’s eyes, are ubiquitous throughout the media. (Think Britney, Paris and Lindsay.) Others succeed in attracting attention to themselves for all the wrong reasons on a much smaller scale. (Notice the female-teen attire next time you head into Mass, especially now that the warmer weather is here.)
Now some older Catholic girls are recognizing that the crisis of character is mushrooming across the culture — and are deciding to do something about it. They’re stepping forward to show their little sisters in the faith a better way.
Take Anastasia Pearse, 18, from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Victoria, British Columbia. She took up the challenge of modeling what Pope John Paul II called “the feminine genius” after attending an Opus Dei leadership retreat in September 2005.
Pearse and two other teenagers started the Little Flower Girls program, under the patronage of St. Théresè of Lisieux, to help younger girls develop virtue and live authentically Christian lives. She and several other teens mentor about 20 girls in grades three to six, including her 10-year-old sister, Olivia.
“It strikes the younger ones more to see their older sisters living out their Christian faith,” Pearse told the Register. “It’s cool for older girls to mentor younger girls in virtues and elements of the faith.”
The monthly program involves prayer, interactive games, a talk and a craft project emphasizing a specific virtue. The girls are primarily from Pearse’s parish, but some are from other churches and schools. Two similar groups are operating in Vancouver.
Pearse hopes that, by speaking at retreats and gatherings, she and her fellow Little Flower Girls mentors will be able to grow the program beyond their own region.
As the oldest of eight children in her family, Pearse knows what it’s like to grow up without a big sister. “I really wished I had something like this when I was younger,” she says. “I was shy; having a club with girls my age and older girls would have helped me socially and spiritually.”
“Being part of such a big family has definitely had the greatest impact in my life,” she adds. “That, and having to be a role model for my younger siblings.”
She credits her parents for being good role models to her and providing a solid Catholic upbringing. She says she also had good Catholic friends. But not everyone has that, she notes, and that’s where a program like Little Flower Girls can help. Parents have told her they see a difference at home and are seeing the virtues take root in their daughters.
The concept of older girls mentoring younger girls has been tried, tested and fine-tuned in the Schoenstatt Girls Youth Program, which started in Germany in 1931. (Schoenstatt, a Marian movement, started in that country in 1914.) The mentor program is in 30 countries, wherever Schoenstatt communities are active.
There are 42 Schoenstatt groups in Minnesota under the direction of Sister Deanne Neihauf, whose community house is in the town of Sleepy Eye. Schoenstatt Girls Youth consists of three levels: Little Crowns, for 5-to-9-year-olds, Marian Apostles, for girls 10-13, and Ver Sacrum Patris for high-school girls. (The name means Holy Springtime of the Father.)
More than 300 girls also sign up for the summer day camps and weeklong camps at the community house, where they can meet and form relationships with other Schoenstatt girls. Once the girls reach high school, they are formed to be leaders for the younger girls.
“It’s a way to encourage young women to live out a love for Mary and bring her example of virtue into the world,” explains Sister Deanne. “The older girls give an example of faith in a fun way. They’re like movie stars to the younger girls, who look up to them and are receptive to what they have to say. They relay their faith and values, modesty and virtues, and they encourage the younger girls to imitate the saints.”
Amelia Uppgaard was a Schoenstatt summer camp counselor in eighth grade and became a group leader in high school. She first got involved with the program while in third grade at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in St. Anthony, Minn.
“I was inspired by the girls themselves, how receptive they were to our teachings and how enthusiastic they were about participating. Their faith in God was inspiring,” says Uppgaard. “Schoenstatt has given me a solid foundation that I can take with me my whole life. It’s not something you leave behind.”
Now 18 and attending Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, Uppgaard is back on the “little” side of a big-sister relationship. As a member of a campus household that has a Marian charism, she was assigned a big sister who mentors her and prepares her to be — what else? — a mentor.
Another program that relies on older girl leaders is the Totus Tuus Catholic Youth Organization started by Terry and Lisa Quinn, of Lake Elmo, Minn. After some of their own five children, ages 3 to 13, were starting to outgrow the available faith-enrichment programs, the couple were inspired to start Totus Tuus as a way to continue faith development and foster strong father-son and mother-daughter relationships through high school.
Totus Tuus (online at totustuuscyo.com) hosts monthly programs and retreats as well as an annual Defending the Faith conference for families. Young people learn about the Catholic faith and hear testimonies from older youth, a member of the clergy or lay speaker. Totus Tuus also promotes family Eucharistic adoration, theology of the body and Catholic apologetics programs.
“We try to bring the kids into the full spectrum of the faith to impact today’s youth,” says Lisa. “It’s through the youth that we will find hope and healing in the family. We want to encourage strong families.”
Older girls take on leadership roles in the CYO programs, giving talks to the younger girls. Some of them are asked to speak at confirmation retreats and parishes throughout the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“The testimonies that the girls give are monumental for the younger girls,” says Lisa. “I’ve been blown away by some of the talks by these teens. They see them as role models and they want to do what the older girls are going. It plants a seed for a future youth to come out and be courageous and stand up for the faith, which is difficult to do.”
Alana Jacobs, 18, of White Bear Lake, Minn., has been involved in Totus Tuus for three years and has given talks at retreats and other venues.
“I’m not naturally a public speaker, but I’m more comfortable sharing something that’s a big part of my life,” she says. “It’s great to hear other young people like myself testifying about their faith. What and who you’re exposed to is important in your life, and this has helped me grow in my faith.”
The Quinns hope the program bears fruit in the culture when today’s youth are adults. “If we can raise our youth to be strong enough and bold enough to combat the sin and evil that is so much in front of them, they’ll be strong in character and in everything they do,” says Lisa. “God will reward and bless them for it.”
Barb Ernster writes from