Opening the door

Feb. 12-19, 2004
Opening the door
By Kristen Fox / SUN  Staff Writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Parish works to make its church a welcome place

Tom Moynihan and Greer Gavan have been attending weekly services at St. Ann’s Church in Manlius for the past year and a half. They look forward to church, in particular Father Kevin Hannon’s homilies and the sign of peace. Both agree that attending Mass and the parish community St. Ann’s has enhanced their lives. And they couldn’t do it without a little help from Dottie DeSimone.

Moynihan and Gavan have developmental disabilities, which make it difficult for them to get to Mass on their own. DeSimone, who attends Mass regularly at St. Ann’s with her husband and four sons, picks up Moynihan and Gavan at their home in Manlius and they all participate in Mass together. The relationship began when DeSimone, who works for L’Arche, responded to an ad in St. Ann’s bulletin looking for someone to drive disabled adults to church. “The Lord brought us all together and made this happen,” she remarked. Before she started picking them up, DeSimone met one Saturday afternoon with Moynihan and Gavan to break the ice. “I hadn’t been around developmentally disabled people in this way before, but when I met Tom and Greer we clicked,” said DeSimone. “They are remarkable people with so many wonderful characteristics.”

What started out as a small act of kindness has blossomed into a beautiful friendship. Moynihan and Gavan have grown close to DeSimone. They talk to her about how their day is going or problems they encounter with people who don’t understand their disabilities. “I don’t think of this as a taxi-cab service. It’s much more than that; it’s forming a fellowship,” DeSimone said. “I have become terrific friends with Tom and Greer. I have shared in their joys, their good news and their worries.” “They have given a gift to my family also,” DeSimone added. “They have taught us to appreciate the gifts we have in our everyday life and cherish them.”

Gavan said that St. Ann’s Parish has gone out of its way to make her feel included. A baptized Catholic, she had been away from church for several years and was wary of how she would fit in to parish life again. Father Hannon, pastor of St. Ann’s, made a special trip to her house to welcome her. “Father Hannon came to my house and showed me how to take communion,” she said. “He’s very nice.” The church was a special source of comfort for Moynihan when he lost his mother to breast cancer last March. He recalled sitting at St. Ann’s and feeling at peace with himself. “I felt very calm in church,” Moynihan said. Most parishioners know Moynihan and Gavan outside of Mass. The pair works at a local P&C. They enjoying seeing the familiar faces that come through the store. “We like saying ‘hi’ to the people we know at St. Ann’s,” Tom said. “We really like to see Father Hannon.”

Rachel Perkins, a member of the committee regarding persons living with disabilities, said that the problem of finding ways to include people with disabilities in parish life is common. She cited the closing of the Syracuse Developmental Center as a contributing factor to the isolation of people with disabilities. When the center shut its doors in late 1996, many disabled people were placed in state-run homes in the community. Being thrust into a new neighborhood makes it difficult to socialize and find support in church communities, she said. “There are approximately 500 disabled people living in state-run homes in Onondaga County,” Perkins said. “They have become isolated and lost their connection to the church.”

The committee regarding persons living with disabilities was formed at the request of Bishop James Moynihan following the closing of the diocesan office for persons with disabilities last year, said Perkins. The committee is working to find and identify disabled Catholics in communities and bring them to church. “We would like to see more churches get involved in friendship building with persons with disabilities,” Perkins said. “There are so many ways the people from church can befriend persons with disabilities and help them to be included in parish life.” The committee is currently reaching out to the 61 churches in Onondaga County and asking parishioners to give of their time and talent to help disabled persons. “We really need parishes to step forward and help to fill this need,” said Perkins. “People can choose how they want to get involved and what they want to do to help.”

According to DeSimone, some people might not know how to break into the world of developmentally disabled people, but she hopes that they won’t be afraid to take that extra step and get involved. “As a church, we are supposed to be a group of people who support one another,” DeSimone said. “We need to be a warm, welcoming church community to persons with disabilities too.”

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