For nearly two decades, Cyndi Sabatino served as the director of religious education at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville. “What a wonderful journey,” she said, reflecting on her ministry leading one of the largest children’s religious education programs in the Diocese of Nashville, with more than 500 children enrolled.
Sabatino estimates that over 1,000 children received their first communion during the 19 years she served as DRE until her recent retirement. “That was the heart and soul of the job, sacramental preparation,” she said.
“She put in a lot of hard work and long hours to make the program run smoothly,” said Father Eric Fowlkes, former pastor of Our Lady of the Lake who worked closely with her for 12 years.
“Cyndi is a person of strong faith and dedication, and has a great sense of mission,” he added.
Sabatino was originally hired by Father Fowlkes’ predecessor, the late Msgr. William Bevington. “Father Bevington had great faith in me,” said Sabatino.
She had been an active parish member, involved in the Moms PLUS group, director of Vacation Bible School, a catechist and a eucharistic minister. But she didn’t have any formal teaching or theology training when Father Bevington asked her to serve as the parish’s director of religious education.
“I come from a marketing and management background,” Sabatino said, which came in handy with her new role, but she still needed additional training.
Sabatino completed her catechetical certification training through the diocese, learning about leadership, catechesis, relationship and community building, parish life, retreat planning, and more. “I learned and grew so much under Sheri Isham,” who was formerly head of the diocese’s Office of Catechetical Formation.
She credits strong parish leadership and active parent involvement for making her time as Our Lady of the Lake’s DRE a success.
With Hendersonville’s population growth and Our Lady of the Lake’s corresponding growth, Sabatino saw the number of children nearly double from the time she started as DRE to the time she retired.
“Father Eric really built our catechetical team,” she said. Then it was up to her to recruit and retain volunteer religious education teachers and “make them feel like part of a family,” by offering them the support and resources they needed.
“Getting parents on board was really key,” to the program’s success as well, Sabatino said. “They understand the importance of formation.”
Even now, during the pandemic when not nearly as many families are attending Mass, more than 200 children are still attending in-person religious education classes. The remainder are learning at home. “They’re not coming to Mass, but they’re coming to class,” she said, which speaks to the parents’ level of commitment to the program.
Even though she’s retired, Sabatino is staying connected to the program. She’s on call to answer questions from the interim DRE, seminarian Tylor Starkey, and she plans to volunteer with the religious education program or any other parish needs.
“It’s been an incredible experience,” she said of serving as DRE for 19 years. “I’m open to God’s plan for what’s next for me.”