Montana’s story: Teen’s path into Church paved by love, community’s support

In a dress she helped to design — white satin and lace with periwinkle accents — 15-year-old Montana Hinnenkamp stood in front of her parish family Aug. 6 and received the sacraments of initiation, welcoming her into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Montana Hinnenekamp, 15, poses with a candle painted by Father Steve Binsfeld and a banner she made for her initiation into the Catholic Church Aug. 6 at St. Mary Parish in Alexandria. (photos by Richard Shorma)

Montana hasn’t had an easy life. At just 5 years old, she was placed in foster care with LuAnn and Dennis Hinnenkamp, who permanently adopted her when she was 12. Montana also has autism, a developmental disorder that poses challenges with social interaction and communication as well as repetitive behaviors.

When the family moved to Alexandria from Fargo, they decided together that Montana, then 14, was ready to explore the Catholic faith — more than just attending Mass and parish activities with her parents.

When they approached Father Steve Binsfeld and faith formation coordinator Laurie Bienias at St. Mary’s in Alexandria about the best way for Montana to learn her faith, one name came to mind: Barb Friederichs.

Barb and her husband, Bob, also adopted three children — Robbie, Annie and Katie, now adults — who each are “differently-abled,” as Barb refers to their special needs. Barb taught religious education throughout all of her children’s lives and knew that Montana would need a tailored one-on-one approach.

“The commitment was huge,” Barb admitted. “I was asked to do this and, at first, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it. But something made me say yes.”

Barb set out to see if she could devise a plan for Montana. They had never met before, and she wasn’t sure how Montana would react to her. Barb decided that it would be best if one of Montana’s parents always attended the lessons.

It took a while for them to warm up to each other. Once when meeting, Montana was taking especially long in the bathroom and her mom was about to go get her. Barb decided she would go instead of LuAnn.

“I wanted to give her the impression that our lessons were important, to let her know that we are in this together,” Barb said. “And after that, she came back and got right to work.”

Because Montana hadn’t had faith formation before, Barb started doing two lessons at a time.

“It’s a lot to squeeze in — a lifetime of lessons in an academic year,” she said.

They began by studying the Bible. At first, Barb would flag the lessons in the Bible and have Montana find the flags, then they would take turns reading from the Bible.

“It didn’t take her but a few weeks to catch on to that. She really grabbed on to the Bible. She loved it,” Barb recalled.

Not all concepts were easy for Montana. Barb said that when it came time to learn about reconciliation, it was a real challenge.

“She had a really hard time grasping the concept of sin. One of the words used in that lesson was ‘scrutiny.’ I thought. ‘How am I going to get that concept across?’ It takes more creativity than the books offered to keep her engaged.”

During the lesson, Barb gave Montana a magnifying glass. She told her to go around and look at things without the magnifying glass and then look again using the magnifying glass.

“I told her to look for the details. That’s what ‘scrutiny’ means, to really look at your life in detail,” Barb said.

Father Steve Binsfeld pours water over Montana’s head during the baptismal rite. (photos by Richard Shorma)

Barb and Montana met weekly for almost a year, joining the other adults preparing for RCIA for prayer and then breaking off to study together. Dennis or LuAnn also attended to reinforce the lessons at home. Each session, Montana would take home an assignment to complete and bring back.

“She also loved learning about the symbols including the bread representing the body of Christ, water symbolic for baptism, wine representing the blood of Christ. It became a fun challenge for me to find tie-in activities to the lessons that reinforced the weekly topics,” Barb said.

“We tied it all together near the end, providing Montana with a kit to make her own banner. The banner was full of symbolic meaning that she could tell her whole year in one picture. It was beautifully done and shared at Mass the day of her joining the Church.”

As the day of her initiation crept closer, COVID-19 hit.

“Our parish had to close our church, cancel Masses and Holy Week which left our RCIA candidates waiting, with no date in sight for their initiation,” said Laurie Bienias. “Montana and Barb continued to meet and it was refreshing to see God’s work still moving in the midst of these closures.

Godparents RuthAnn Pfremmer and Dan and Mary Sand, along with RCIA sponsor Barb Friederichs, gather around Montana Hinnenkamp as she receives the sacraments of initiation. (photos by Richard Shorma)

“Our parish searched for new ways to minister to our people and when churches began to open we were able to set a date for Montana. She was so excited that her wait was finally over,” she said.

LuAnn told Montana she would need a special dress for the day. Montana went to work on drawing a picture of what she hoped her dress would look like. Both Barb and LuAnn sew, and the two of them put their heads together to come up with a pattern to make the dress of Montana’s dreams.

“And did we make a pretty and detailed dress,” Barb said. “It was customized to be as close to her detailed picture as we could come to, adding special touches such as periwinkle satin from Dennis and LuAnn’s beautifully done and shared at Mass the day of her joining the Church.”

As the day of her initiation crept closer, COVID-19 hit.

“Our parish had to close our church, cancel Masses and Holy Week which left our RCIA candidates waiting, with no date in sight for their initiation,” said Laurie Bienias. “Montana and Barb continued to meet and it was refreshing to see God’s work still moving in the midst of these closures.

“Our parish searched for new ways to minister to our people and when churches began to open we were able to set a date for Montana. She was so excited that her wait was finally over,” she said.

LuAnn told Montana she would need a special dress for the day. Montana went to work on drawing a picture of what she hoped her dress would look like. Both Barb and LuAnn sew, and the two of them put their heads together to come up with a pattern to make the dress of Montana’s dreams.

“And did we make a pretty and detailed dress,” Barb said. “It was customized to be as close to her detailed picture as we could come to, adding special touches such as periwinkle satin from Dennis and LuAnn’s daughter Sheila’s wedding, lace from my wedding dress, matching beads sewn onto the lace, and a purse to match. She was a beautiful girl before the church in all her purity.”

Barb did much of the work on the dress and LuAnn made matching pantaloons at Montana’s request. LuAnn also fashioned face masks in matching periwinkle for family members. A special touch was Montana’s mask made by Barb and embroidered by Barb’s friend — it was periwinkle on one side, which she wore into the church, and white on the other. After her baptism, she switched the mask to the white side as a symbol of purity.

“There were so many personal touches for Montana,” LuAnn said. “The dress, the masks, the banner, and Father Steve painted her a special candle. This was the most amazing experience for her to walk and for us to walk with her on her journey. It was a great opportunity for her to learn her faith in a very independent, individualized way.”

A gift for the whole community

Montana receives the light of Christ from Father Steve Binsfeld, surrounded by her godparents, RuthAnn Pfremmer, Dan and Mary Sand, and her RCIA sponsor, Barb Friedrichs. (photos by Richard Shorma)

“RCIA is not about just learning about the faith, it is also about relationships forged within the community of faith,” said Father Steve Binsfeld, who celebrated the sacraments with Montana. LuAnn said the experience also helped them meet new people in the community through Montana.

“Even her school counselor had read about her experience in the church newsletter. It has been really an amazing experience for all of us,” LuAnn said. “It allowed me to rekindle all of my sacraments. As an adult, it takes on a whole new meaning. It was a great renewal of faith.”

And the relationships formed will be lifelong for Montana and Barb. During the phase that follows the sacraments of initiation called “mystagogy,” Barb and Montana will still meet monthly until Christmas for lessons and fellowship. Then, Barb said, they will continue to keep in touch.

“I’m her forever church friend, I told her, even though our lessons are almost done. We built a relationship of friendship and trust, of church and family and how we are a family as church. And that doesn’t have to end,” Barb said.

“I was lucky to have a friend [30 years my senior] who had a profound impact on me, and now I found someone I can be special for. I can be a positive influence on her,” Barb said. “It was God leading me through it. God gave me a gift that I could share and I did.”

Laurie said that watching Barb and Montana work together throughout the year and being present at the Mass celebrating her coming into the Church renewed her.

“I witnessed the power of discipleship firsthand. These moments make you appreciate our Church, our God and our calling. This story is one of overcoming obstacles and how the power of faith, love and perseverance can change everything.”

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is the associate editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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