BY FRAN PERRITANO
The University of Notre Dame.
South Bend, Ind.
The names evoke a number of visions: Irish football. Touchdown Jesus. Knute Rockne (“Win one for the Gipper!”).
For several teenagers this summer, the visions were a bit different. Notre Dame was a place to meet young people their age, share their faith and grow closer to God — and have fun doing it.
Eight teenagers from Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament and one from St. Paul’s Church in Whitesboro traveled in July to South Bend to take part in Notre Dame Vision 2013.
“Notre Dame Vision is a five-day Catholic youth conference that includes dynamic large group experiences, reflective small group time, profound liturgies and excellent music,” said Anne Elacqua, parish Faith Formation coordinator for seventh through 12th grade.
“Speakers from all across the country break open important themes throughout the week and help the participants to relate them to their own lives. There are 65 Notre Dame undergraduates that serve as mentors.”
The students who attended were Gianna Amerosa, Taylor Gray, Keaton Kukowski, Angelina Mancuso, Isabella Mancuso, Patricia Mazzatti, John Siniscarco, Greg Torres and Brooklynne Wickman (St. Paul’s).
The program isn’t free. The fee is $425 per person, which includes room and meals at the conference. There are other costs, too, including the train trip and other meals.
To pay for the journey, Anne said they raised funds selling candy and flowers. Several groups from the parish also donated.
The trips to Notre Dame began four years ago.
“Anna Mancuso started out the whole trip,” she said. “She went four years ago with Paul Hanley as her chaperone. The next year she got five kids to go and we went with St. Bernard’s in Waterville. Last year, Chris Gray went as our chaperone and took six kids, and this past year she went with nine.”
One of those nine was Keaton Kukowski. The Vision 2013 experience was his first.
“I heard about Vision a couple of years ago when some of the kids who went spoke about how much they enjoyed it and how much they learned,” said the 14-year-old Notre Dame Junior-Senior High School freshman. “When I was invited to go, I thought it would be great.
“Vision gave me a chance to make friends and share our thoughts about God and being Catholic. I met kids from all over, and we toured the various religious sites on campus, attended workshops, prayed and sang, and just hung out together.”
This was Taylor Gray’s second experience at Notre Dame Vision. The 17-year-old Thomas R. Proctor High School senior said she was most impressed with the one-on-one time with the Notre Dame Vision mentors and how they were able to connect and relate with the high school students.
“It was great to be around other teenagers that share the love of God and spirituality,” she said, “meeting new people and getting more connected with my faith.”
Taylor’s mom, Christine, was a chaperone this year. It was her first time participating in Notre Dame Vision program, but her second trip as a chaperone.
“Anne Elacqua approached me last year about chaperoning six youths,” she said. “It was too late for me to register for the Vision program, so I stayed in a rectory on campus and self-guided the campus, basilica and history of faith on campus.”
She’s thrilled her daughter got to experience the program.
“(It was) a positive experience in her journey with faith and a rooted connection to her vocation in the Catholic Church.”
John Siniscarco, a 16-year-old junior at New Hartford High School, said he had a pretty good connection with God before he went to Notre Dame. Now, that’s changed – for the better.
“Before going to Vision, I felt that I had a good personal relationship with God,” he said. “Since going to Vision, I feel closer to God and to my faith. I prayed a lot at Vision and I asked for continued guidance in my life. God has always been there for me and I feel that even more since going to Vision.
“I learned so much about my Catholic faith, too, and it made me appreciate my faith more. Being able to spend time with God and prayer for a week just gave me the alone time to focus on my faith. All year long I am so busy with school and sports; it is nice to just have some time to focus on your faith.”
Though summer has ended and the teens are back in school, the enthusiasm from their summer experience has carried over.
Taylor Gray said she’s told her friends about it: “Definitely! They would really like to attend with me next year.”
So has Keaton Kukowski: “I talked to several people about the experience and everyone said the same thing – that it was probably beautiful there and would I go back. I said ‘yes’ to both right away.”
John Siniscarco is not shy about sharing his experience with his peers: “I talked to my friends about the trip. They thought it was really cool that I went. I have never been afraid to talk about my faith to my friends.”
The excitement has spread to the adults who can’t wait until 2014.
“I have not attended,” Anne Elacqua said. “I think I will be going this coming year as my son David really wants to go and he will be old enough to go now. The kids who go come home so excited and they are the drive that entices new kids to go.”
Knute Rockne would be proud of this group.