Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

First grader Teagan Chapman twirled in circles singing, “Now I’m a Christian” at recess on Tuesday, Feb. 20, the day of her baptism at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School (OLMC) in Newport News.

 “I’ve never seen a child of that age take such pride in that,” said Dominican Sister Anna Joseph, principal of the school.

Father Dan Beeman, OLMC pastor, said Teagan “certainly is open to God’s grace in her life and excited about being part of the Church.”

Teagan’s father, Cecil, had planted the seeds for her belief in God by praying and reading the Bible to her since she was 6 weeks old, but the seeds did not take root until this school year. She attended a Newport News Parks and Recreation summer camp held at OLMC last summer where Susan Bender, who happens to be the OLMC first grade teacher, was a facilitator. 

One day Teagan asked her, “Is this a church school?” 

When Bender said yes, Teagan said she didn’t believe in God or Jesus. Bender said she did and left it at that. 

Toward the end of the 10-week camp, Teagan had become smitten with Bender and asked her parents to transfer her from the Newport News public school where she attended kindergarten to OLMC School. Even though her mother, Angel, does not believe in God and her father was Christian but not Catholic at the time, they enrolled Teagan and her sixth-grade half-brother Galvin Fitzgerald in OLMC. 

There, she began a quest to learn more about God and Jesus. 

It was an easy quest.

“Faith is in everything we do,” Sister Anna Joseph said.

From the physical environment to the curriculum, OLMC students are spiritually immersed. Each grade prays together and has a religion class. Teachers weave faith into their curricula. For example, Bender often uses “church words” to supplement the spelling lists, and she relates parables and other Bible readings to what the class is learning.

“There’s meaning behind everything we are doing,” Sister Anna Joseph said. “I think she is a little girl who is very taken with the depth of the faith and wants to know why it is we’re doing what we’re doing and yet believes then with a simple, childlike faith.”

Teagan’s smile, minus two front baby teeth, beams as she talks about her faith. While sweeping her hands up and down to illustrate hills, she said, “I started my journey on the way up – like a hill. You go from the smallest part and then you go big, and then you go back down. Boom, boom, boom.”

In reference to her baptism, she added, “I haven’t gone down yet.”

Teagan encountered religious sisters for the first time at OLMC. She is considering becoming one when she grows up —that or an artist or one of Santa’s elves.

“Hopefully, when I’m 7, Santa will call and send me to the North Pole school because you have to go to the school and learn your ‘elf-phabet,’” she said, again with a broad grin. “It must be hard to be an elf because you have to count all the toys and make sure that they work right, and I like playing with toys.”

Her father said Teagan started asking theological questions when she was 3 years old. “One I remember distinctly was, ‘If God and Jesus are the same person, then where was God when Jesus was on earth?” 

“That’s an easy question,” Teagan chimed in. “I know that. Up in heaven. Well, heaven wasn’t opened yet, but God was still in heaven with all of his angels.”

As Teagan learned more about Jesus and the Lord at school, her love for them grew, Bender said, and she asked to be baptized.

“I wanted to be in the family of God,” Teagan said.

Her parents were supportive. Her mother was on board after she and Teagan discussed the commitment, which includes going to Sunday Masses. Her father had been looking for a faith community to call home and was considering joining the Catholic Church, a decision he had been researching since he was a teenager.  

When Teagan asked to be baptized, “that sealed the deal,” he said. He was on a naval deployment and started formal studies as a candidate on ship and continued when he returned home. He was confirmed at Sacred Heart, Norfolk, a week before Teagan’s baptism.

Teagan’s godparents are Bender and family friend Joshua-David Ehrhardt. Bender said she felt “touched” when Teagan asked her to be her godmother. Since Bender is not Catholic, she became a Christian witness, a role similar to godmother.

Teagan’s baptism was the first time an OLMC child received the sacrament in the school community. Normally students are baptized in their home parishes, but since Teagan didn’t have one, she was baptized at a school Mass where her friends prayed over her. 

For many students, this was the first baptism they had witnessed or remember seeing, so they “were really paying attention of what was going on” and were “amazed and awed,” Bender said, adding that it provided students the opportunity “to see the beauty of being able to become Christian and join God’s  family.”