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Catechist feels privileged for 50 years teaching others about Jesus

091721Papich LaVerne 

La Verne Papich of Portage enjoys reminiscing about all the priests and catechists she has worked with in the Diocese of Gary. At age 91, the Nativity of Our Savior parishioner has spent 50 years supporting various Catholic religious education programs in Northwest Indiana. (Erin Ciszczon photo)

 

BY ERIN CISZCZON

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

      PORTAGE – Everything happened to me for a purpose. It had to have been,” said La Verne Papich, who at 91 years old has spent over 50 years teaching religion within the Diocese of Gary.

      Papich grew up in Chicago but in 1969 she found herself looking for a safer community to raise her family. Her husband Al was working at WIKB, a local radio station in Valparaiso, so they began looking in Northwest Indiana. After receiving a tip regarding a soon-to-be-listed house in Portage, they went to see it and met with the current owners.

      “We came in and she (the homeowner) had my kids sitting on the floor with her. They just had a ball and were playing together, and she says to me ‘This is your home. You’re going to stay here,’” said Papich, recalling the visit.

      Papich began assisting the women’s religious at Immaculate Conception in East Chicago. They were part of the Daughters of the Precious Blood, an order with whom she became familiar with while attending Assumption church in Chicago. It was during this time Vatican II started and Papich helped drive the nuns to classes to learn about the changes within the church. She was sitting in the parking lot waiting for the sisters to complete their class one day when she was approached by a priest who inquired why she was there and invited her to join the class.

      “And that’s how I started to learn, and I was so interested,” she explained. “So, then I started to teach religion in the school for the kids.”

      As for her own children, Papich, despite having recently moved, still wanted to enroll her children in Catholic school. She learned that Portage did not currently have a Catholic school within the town, as Nativity of Our Savior was just beginning. She instead would enroll her four children Teresa Marie, David Gerard, Paula Jean and Gregory Alan at first in nearby St. Francis Xavier in Lake Station.

      As Nativity of Our Savior continued to grow, Papich became the sacristan and started teaching religion. Pastor Carl Mengeling, now Bishop Emeritus in Lansing, Mich., realized he needed more catechists and felt all catechists needed to be trained and asked for her help. While assisting him, Papich would spend time in all public schools in Portage.

      “We had a different class every day of the week,” she said. “The kids would go to class and afterwards they would just stay, and we catechists would go in after the end of the day,” she explained.

      Papich's dedication to teaching children quickly led to her being offered a position at Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond. She turned the offer down at first because she only had experience working with younger children and was nervous about teaching high school students. However, a personal phone call from then-Bishop Andrew Grutka encouraged her to give it a try.

      While working at Bishop Noll, Papich would get to know Father Dominic Bertino who taught in the classroom across the hall. During her 10 years at BNI, she would also get to know many other priests within the diocese including Father Richard Orlinski, Father Michael Yadron and Father Walter Rakoczy.

      Father Yadron, pastor of St. Thomas More in Munster, said Papich’s best quality is her faithfulness to the Lord because she has been so faithful and has done many things for people. He said he has never known her to give less than 100% of herself to anything that she set her hand to do.

      “As an instructor, she was exemplary. As a mentor, she was outstanding. As a coworker, she was extremely helpful. As a teacher, she let her students know that the faith and knowledge of the faith were critical for their lives. She was challenging yet supportive of her students. They knew that she expected much from them, but it was because she wanted them to develop into the best people that they could be,” he said.

      Papich had been teaching at Bishop Noll for a decade when there developed a need for teachers at Marquette High School. Following the advice of her husband that “change can be good,” she accompanied Father Rakoczy to teach at the Catholic high school in Michigan City.

      Papich would teach at Marquette High School for just three years before receiving a letter from then-Bishop Norbert Gaughan requesting her to be transferred to Andrean High School in Merrillville. Disappointed by the news, she quickly made an appointment to see the bishop to find out why she was being reassigned, wanting to know if there were any concerns with her teaching methods that may have led to the decision.

      “I was concerned more about my teaching than anything else,” she said.

      Papich learned that there was a nun who needed to move back to Michigan City to be closer to her ailing mother. Upon hearing of the situation, she agreed to switch schools. This made Papich one of the only teachers to serve in all three Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Gary.

      Papich truly has a passion to teach religion to anyone at any age and at any ability. In fact, she traces her love of teaching religion to when she was newly married and spent time helping her husband’s aunt with her children. Despite being mentally handicapped, one of their children named Donald, always wanted to know why he couldn’t receive Comm. Papich began working with him and prepared him to receive the sacrament. This passion would lead her to organize a class specifically for children within the diocese with various special needs. The class was offered at Nativity of Our Savior, which attracted a total of 27 children.

      “I ended up being involved and I had all the parents there,” she said. “The parents were the teachers. I believed the parent is the primary teacher of the child, and I still believe that.”

      Papich tried to retire several times over the years, but parishes needing her assistance continued to reach out to her for assistance. She has run the religious education program at St. Bridget in Hobart, helped organize the program at St. Francis Xavier, and has assisted with religion classes at Cathedral of the Holy Angels in Gary. She also was instrumental in starting the diocesan network, PARE/FF (Parish Administrators of Religious Education/Faith Formation).

      One of Papich’s proudest moments was receiving the St. Catherine of Siena Award in 2004, an award given to an outstanding catechist in the state of Indiana. She said she felt it was a little bit of a recognition for all the work she had done throughout the years.

      “I am not a saint. I get hot-headed. I’m a human being,” Papich said. “But I love God and I love my faith. And I do love teaching about Jesus. He is truly my brother in every sense of the word. I just feel so close (to him) when I teach.”

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