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Stacy Rodriquez, right, sits with her children Nico, now a second grader at St. Bernadette School, and Abby, a sophomore at Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School, as they do their homework. ELIZABETH WELLS

St. Bernadette student evangelizes family

Three years ago, the Rodriquez and Baxter families never dreamed they would be Catholic.

Stacey and Johnnie Rodriquez, their daughter Abby, Stacey’s brother Nick Baxter, and her parents, Georgeann and Denny Baxter, were doing just fine without much in the way of religion in their lives – or so they thought.

But everything changed when Nico, Stacey and Johnnie’s son, then a preschooler at St. Bernadette School in Omaha, kept sharing the stories he was learning there.

Although miles from their home in northwest Omaha, it was the only all-day preschool Stacey could find. Close to her parents’ home, St. Bernadette had been her school from kindergarten through third grade.

“We never talked about religion until he went to preschool,” said Stacey. “I was the biggest anti-religious person – I believed in God – but wasn’t into organized religion. I told everyone, it’s only for preschool.”

At the end of preschool, Nico persuaded his parents to let him attend kindergarten there.

Nico was thriving, said Johnnie.

SERIOUS INTEREST

“He had a serious interest in what he was learning. Every day there was a quote from the Bible, and he asked me about it,” Johnnie said. “Nico definitely followed everything he learned. He started treating people the way that he was learning in the stories.”

Stacey remembers Nico googling things he learned in school and then presenting them for discussion with the family at random times. “He was so intrigued. He wanted to pray before we ate and before he went to bed,” she said.

Nico also asked his mom and grandma to come with him to Friday all-school Masses. They attended, as did his sister Abby when she was available. According to Stacey and Georgeann, Mass left them with a sense of calm and of being at home.

And Abby began asking to transfer into the school’s seventh grade, although the class was at capacity.

As kindergarten neared completion, Nico again said he wanted to stay. About that time, a space in eighth grade opened for Abby.

SURPRISE REQUEST

Nico’s next request – to be baptized – surprised his parents.

“I didn’t know what it meant to be baptized,” said Johnnie. “Stacey had been (baptized in another church), but I had a lot of questions.” Still, he told Stacey he wanted to support Nico’s enthusiasm and to better understand what had so captivated his son.

They contacted the church and learned about Rite of Christian Initiation classes for Nico, and for Abby who wanted to be confirmed with her classmates.

Johnnie and Stacey went along for more information.

Nico also asked his uncle Nick Baxter to be his godfather. Nick was not Catholic, nor planning to be, but he went to the first Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) class to support his nephew.

QUESTIONS ANSWERED

Johnnie said RCIA provided answers to all his questions. Nick continued too. “It turned into a family thing. We did it together. It was the coolest thing in my life. I never believed in the afterlife and God before,” Johnnie said.

Their new faith changed many things, Stacey said. “Abby is a totally different kid. She struggled in public school and was frustrated. I don’t even recognize her as the same kid from three years ago.

“I am not the same person. I don’t worry about things like I used to. I believe God has a plan for us, and we’re here for a reason,” she said. “He doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.”

During the time they attended RCIA, Stacey said, the family faced a couple of personal hardships. “What we learned (in RCIA) helped our family deal with what had happened. It helped us get through and brought us closer,” said Stacey. “We found peace in knowing God was helping us through it all.”

GRANDPARENTS TOO

Inspired by these transformations in their children and grandchildren, Georgeann said she and her husband began classes and entered the church the following year.

“My husband had never been baptized. I never knew that until one night after the kids were going to RCIA. He said, ‘I’d go with you to classes if you want me to,’” she said. “He hadn’t thought about God or Jesus in his life before, as far as I know.”

Nico is now a second grader at St. Bernadette and his family and teachers say, “Everyone knows Nico.” His teacher, Betsy Harding, said Nico seems to already understand what it means to be a good friend, someone who simply likes and accepts others in spite of differences.

“He’s just a really fun-loving, warm-hearted child who makes an impression on you,” said Kathy Dostal, his first-grade teacher.

Nico seems unaffected by his appeal. He said he’s excited for first Communion. His favorite thing about school is “learning about Jesus. I like his story … especially the life he gives us.” When asked what he thinks about his family becoming Catholic, he shrugs.

“He’s totally oblivious to what he’s done,” said Stacey. “I was told just weeks before I found out I was pregnant with him that I couldn’t have any more kids. I truly believe that Nico was put on this earth for a reason. He’s our surprise. He doesn’t know the impact he’s made. He’s just being who he’s supposed to be.”

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