WEST JORDAN — After 36 years teaching religious education to fifth-grade students at St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Gail Lopez is retiring.
Lopez’s path to her vocation started when she was young. She grew up in the Church, but fell away as an adult. She returned to the Church when her three children were young so that they could learn about their faith, she said.
After several years of attending Mass, she decided to help teach religious education in 1986. She began instructing the fifth graders, and estimates that since then she has taught close to 1,000 kids.
Each year Lopez encouraged her students to learn not only the basic prayers but also at least one additional prayer. She also assigned homework every week, and helped those who struggled to turn in the material even if it was late.
“It’s a lot of work, but I just feel strongly about them having a deep relationship with God,” she said.
The secret to winning over what have been termed “difficult” kids is prayer, she said. She prayed often for those students asking for God for help reaching them, and that help always came.
Lopez retired from a business career four years ago. She briefly considered giving up her parish class then, but “I couldn’t just leave kids and not have a teacher for them,” she said.
Instead, she found Patricia Fontaine, who trained under Lopez for the position and will take over the classes this fall.
Lopez and her husband, Louis, are looking to relocate to a warmer climate because they find the Utah winters difficult. When she leaves, Lopez will carry with her many warm memories and will leave a legacy of service and faith among the many she has touched over the years.
Many of her former students have become lectors or involved in other ways of serving in their parishes. Recently, she ran into a student whom she had taught more than 20 years ago who remembered her. He had remained faithful and was now raising his children in the Church. “That was such a great experience,” she said.
Wherever she goes, Lopez hopes to continue her service in the Church.
“It helps me grow and know my faith better,” she said. “It has always assisted me in not taking the Church for granted, knowing the importance… it brought everything heartfelt to me.”
Father Javier Virgen, St. Joseph the Worker pastor, expressed his appreciation for Lopez.
“She has been a wonderful, dedicated, committed parishioner for many years in this parish,” he said. “She is very devoted to the Eucharist, daily Communion and very much involved in the WOWs (the parish’s women’s group). She is a good example of faith, perseverance, love for the children she taught for many, many years. She is a very dedicated lady who by her example motivates people to embrace Christ as well as the calling of service and love.”
Lopez is “probably the sweetest thing you’ve ever met in your life,” said Melissa Castellano, the parish’s director of religious education. “One of the first things I noticed is her genuine care; she genuinely cares about the kids. She also cares about their souls. As they leave her classroom every week, she gives them a blessing and prays with them.”
Mary James, a fellow parishioner, said Lopez taught her grandchildren in religious education many years ago. When she spoke to her about them recently, she was surprised that Lopez remembered them, was very interested in what they are currently doing and even shared a story about them.
“Gail has not only been a teacher in the classroom for the past 36 years, she unknowingly, through her actions in our St. Joseph community, teaches others,” James said. After working with Lopez, “you leave with an uplifting feeling because of something she said or the way she treated another person – you leave with a tidbit of a way to grow in your own Christianity.”