Those with disabilities find a place in innovative program.
Sean Lemaire looked serene processing forward with several young people as they brought forth the gifts during a recent Mass at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River. But this wasn’t a usual Mass, or a typical procession. The Special Religious Development Mass, held March 2, was the culmination of a year of training and faith formation for parishioners with developmental disabilities.
“When we take our other sons to faith formation or youth group,” said Sean’s mother, Mattie Lemaire, “We also know there’s a place for Sean to go on a different day, where he belongs, instead of just taking your other children and feeling like your son has no place.”
Sean has autism, his mother said, and is largely non-verbal. For the past year, he has been going to St. Andrew’s SPRED ministry, a faith formation group for those with developmental disabilities.
The outreach was first developed in Chicago and St. Andrew’s is the first parish in Alaska to incorporate SPRED into its faith formation programs.
“It’s a powerful tool for a community that is often invisible,” said St. Andrew’s pastor Father Tom Brundage.
Father Brundage first discovered the program several years ago when he was a priest at St. Peter and Paul Church in Milwaukee. A parishioner there, whose son has Down Syndrome, asked him what the parish had available for her son.
The answer, at the time, was nothing. So Father Brundage did some research, and that’s when he found out about Chicago’s SPRED program. The outreach flourished at St. Peter and Paul’s, and other parishes in the Milwaukee Archdiocese soon started programs of their own. After moving to St. Andrew’s, Father Brundage said, he saw how SPRED could be helpful for some of his Alaskan parishioners.
The curriculum is specially designed for children, youth and adults with developmental disabilities, and one of its main goals is to make the sacraments more accessible to participants. It uses full sensory engagement, simple messages, and a time to relax, focus and prepare held at the beginning of each session, according to Father Brundage and St. Andrew’s SPRED chair Marlise James. In addition to the faith formation sessions, the program includes a special Mass once or twice a year in which members participate.
James was trained last year as a SPRED catechist so she could be involved in the program. She said her own experience having relatives with developmental disabilities inspired her to help. To start a program at a parish, at least three SPRED catechists are needed, Father Brundage said, and they train at the SPRED center in Chicago for a week that includes observations of the faith formation sessions.
James said volunteering as a catechist in the program has brought her a deeper understanding of what it means to have a communion of faithful that includes all members of Christ’s church.
“I have learned that Christ impels us through his love, to reach out to others, especially those who need us,” she said. “I think sometimes there are so many people who are ignored. And they just need to be invited into the liturgy. It’s important for them to know that people care about them.”
Today, there are more than 100 SPRED programs in the Chicago area, Father Brundage said, and others in Milwaukee, Oakland and now in Alaska. He said St. Patrick Church in Anchorage is also looking at starting its own SPRED program.
As for the impact it has had on her son, Lemaire said he was already involved in the Mass — he attends with his parents each week — but participating in faith formation has given him a greater sense of belonging in the church.
He talks only a little, Lemaire said. But whenever his parents pick him up from a SPRED session and ask him how it went, he looks happy and says, “SPRED is good.”