By Amy White
Special to The Texas Catholic
At the very heart of Mary Immaculate Catholic School in Farmers Branch, a quiet space is being prepared for children to encounter God. The heart, or “Atrium” of the school, is the pet project of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, known also as the “Nashville Dominicans,” who arrived at the Farmers Branch school in 2019.
“The Atrium,” said Sister Annunciata Hawley, a Dominican sister since 1987, “is the term used by the early Church to designate a space where those not yet admitted into the Church go and prepare until they are in full communion with the Church.” In other words, an Atrium is a sacred area to grow in relationship with God.
At Mary Immaculate Catholic School, the term “Atrium” refers specifically to the space reserved for the practice of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Far from a traditional education, the Good Shepherd religious formation is a Montessori-based system founded by Sofia Cavalletti to introduce children ages three to 12 to the truth, beauty, and goodness of the faith through developmentally-appropriate engagement of their five senses.
“Catechesis of the Good Shepherd prepares children to encounter the person of Christ,” said Sister Mary Anne Zuberbueler, who has served as the school’s principal since July of 2019, “They are invited to a special place where they learn to quiet themselves physically and mentally.” This special place of reflection is the Atrium.
Currently, the construction of the Atrium is under way. Already, useful materials, including religious art and old shelves, have been gathered from teachers, religious sisters, and parents for the decoration of the space. These treasures have been restored and rearranged to make the Atrium an inviting place for children to learn, love, and live the truths of their faith.
Sister Annunciata, who serves as the head of the school’s Good Shepherd program, shares her final vision for the Atrium: “The end [goal] would be a larger space with beautiful wood shelves and tables as well as all the necessary materials to teach the children.” Currently, several wood pieces, including an altar, are in construction.
Although the assembling of the Atrium is still in progress, Mary Immaculate students and parents have already begun to notice the preciousness of this reserved space of faith formation.
“The first time I saw children working in an Atrium, I was amazed at the diligence and sense of reverence with which very small children were approaching the works of trimming and arranging real flowers in tiny glass vases, polishing metal, tracing beautiful prayer cards, and gathering to name their intentions and pray together,” said Elizabeth Nava, a Mary Immaculate parent since 2019 and a catechist of 10-plus years. “Children who work in an Atrium have an increased sense of wonder, reverence, and personal ownership of their faith.”
In the present infancy of Mary Immaculate’s Good Shepherd program, only kindergarten and first grade students can participate in the program; however, the sisters hope that students up to fifth grade will be able to enjoy this remarkably reverent form of catechesis in the years to come.