Get Me to the Church

Sept. 16 – 22, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 32
Get Me to the Church
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Paul Osinski enjoyed going to Mass with his mother almost every weekend and on holidays. His mother, a parishioner at St. Margaret’s in Mattydale, was a devout Catholic. Since his mother passed away more than two years ago, Paul hasn’t had much opportunity to practice his faith. Paul is disabled and has lived in a state-run residence in Camillus for the past 14 years.

Felicia White is in her 60s and lived on her own for most of her life until she was placed in the same state-run group home in Camillus two years ago. When Felicia lived near downtown, she attended Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Now, she seldom has the opportunity to attend Mass or receive the sacraments. Both individuals miss practicing their faith.

Mark White was a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish for most of his life, served as an altar server and usher before he moved into residential housing. He is now a parishioner of Holy Family Church in Fairmount. Mark has made many trips to Fatima and served Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Italy. “God is the center of his life,” said his mother, Ginny White. Mark’s parents keep an eye on whether or not he gets to Mass but as they get older, they worry about him continuing to have the opportunity to practice his faith.

It is estimated that eight to 10 million Catholics in the U.S. have a disability. Many of them are prevented from practicing their faith and participating in religious events for a variety of reasons –– feeling unwelcome, inaccessibility and transportation issues. Parishioners at Holy Family Parish as well as parishes throughout the Diocese of Syracuse are trying to change that. They are rallying together to get the word out –– to extend an invitation to the disabled to join them in their faith community –– to welcome them back. Rachel Perkins, a parishioner at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, has a daughter who is disabled and has worked for 18 years to support persons with disabilities. She works tirelessly to ensure that the rights of the disabled are met and advocates for their acceptance into community life. What started out as a service for those with mental retardation and physical disabilities has become a comprehensive service for people who are aging, have injuries or illnesses, mental health issues or developmental issues. Perkins said that approximately 10,000 soldiers will be disabled as the result of the war in Iraq.

“With the close of state-run institutions that had chaplains on staff, the most marginalized people now living in community residences have lost their connection with their faith life,” said Perkins. Because of this, Perkins is working with parishes in the diocese to initiate inclusion of those with disabilities into the community. “Parishes are making the commitment to reach out to disabled individuals,” said Perkins. “As Catholics, we are all in this together. It’s going to be an inclusive world whether we want it or not. It’s up to the parishes to initiate it.”

Kris McGuire is the pastoral care minister at Holy Family Church. She said that she has been in her role as pastoral care minister for five years and had no idea that there was a need that was not being met. “This is new for us –– developing this ministry,” she said. “We want to get the disabled involved in church activities and make them feel welcome.” McGuire said that her hope is to establish a well-known outreach program that will reach out to the disabled. As a way to do that, McGuire and other lay ministers at Holy Family will send out invitations to the state-run residences in the parish inviting them to upcoming events.

Mark’s father, Bob White, said that it would be helpful if the diocese sent parents and families of those with disabilities information on the services offered. In turn, he said it is also important for parents to advocate for their children by contacting the parish and letting them know they have a child with needs. “Let them know what the disabled person was involved in previously. And register them as parishioners and to receive envelopes. It’s up to the parents to be the instigators,” said Bob.

“Parents have to express the need for services for their children,” Ginny added. “If we don’t approach the pastor, nothing will happen.” In addition to informing the parish priest of the need for services for their son, the Whites said that the resident supervisors also have to be made aware of the disabled person’s wish to attend Mass and other parish events. “The staff has to be aware that it is the wish of the family that there are those who want to attend Mass,” said Ginny. However, although the staff at the state-run residences may be aware of a person’s wish to attend Mass, it is often difficult for them to fulfill the request.

Spencer Baum is a community residence director at a state-run home in Camillus. He has worked at the house for 22 years, having previously worked at the Syracuse Developmental Center. He said that staffing is an issue when trying to fill the needs of each resident. “We only have two vehicles available to transport the eight residents in the house,” explained Baum. The staff of eight works rotating shifts seven days a week, 24 hours each day. Baum said it would take extra work from the staff to provide the residents with transportation to and from church activities, but offers overtime pay to staff members willing to come in to transport consumers. McGuire said that as a way to get to know the disabled members of the Holy Family community, she has been making visits to the residential homes in the community. “The consumers were so open to our visits,” she said. McGuire admits that the success of including the disabled into the parish depends a lot on the cooperation and availability of the house manager. “The churches are trying to take on some of the responsibility, but so much of it depends on the cooperation of the house staff,” agreed Perkins.

Mary Salisbury has a daughter with disabilities who entered residential housing in Camillus in June. Before becoming a member of Holy Family, her daughter was a member of St. Mary’s Church in Baldwinsville for 31 years. Like the Whites, Mary is concerned about her daughter’s participation in parish activities when she is no longer able to transport her. “As parents age, they cannot continue to do all that they did when their child was a child,” said Salisbury. “Caregivers of adult persons with disabilities need to have an individualized service plan in place that specifies their child’s wish to continue their religious practice,” she said. At St. Anthony’s Parish in Chadwicks, Janice Hyde is also going into community state-run homes to invite people to church and inform them of the services available. “The people in the residential homes don’t know about the programs,” she said. “We are getting the word out about the services we offer –– Mass, special activities and religious education programs. St. Anthony’s offers a religious education program for children with special needs. “There is a big need for it,” said Hyde, whose own daughter has Down’s Syndrome. Of the half dozen children who go to St. Anthony’s for religious education, all must find their own transportation. “It’s a big problem,” said Hyde.

Sister Mary Cepha, PVMI, at St. John the Baptist in Rome, echoed Hyde’s concern. St. John’s also offers religious education to disabled parishioners every Saturday morning. The classes incorporate art, music, stories and drama into the curriculum. Each week, Sister Mary Cepha asks the students to go around the room and say something nice about the other children. “They usually say things like, ‘I like your tee shirt’ or ‘I like your sneakers,’” explained Sister Mary Cepha. “One student told me I reminded him of Whoopie Goldberg,” Sister Mary Cepha said, referring to the movie star in her role as a nun in “Sister Act.” “It’s a lot of fun. The children really enjoy it,” she said.

Sister Mary Cepha said that the supervisors and managers of the residential homes will not transport their clients to Saturday religion classes and then to Mass on Sunday. “If I could find transportation that would allow the children to come to both religious education classes and to Mass, I would be very appreciative,” she said. At St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church in Utica, Marie Testa, a parish advocate for persons with disabilities, said her parish continues to look for ways to make the disabled feel welcome. “Our church campus is very accessible to individuals with disabilities,” said Testa. “We are in the process of making it more so. We recently acquired a sound system for individuals who are hearing-impaired. It enables them to hear the priest, the homily, and the readings of the Scripture. This is one of the ways a parish can make individuals feel more inclusive in the liturgy,” she said.

Testa said that many of the steps taken to accommodate those with disabilities not only help them, but help those who are not disabled as well. “For example, cutting out a curb not only helps those in a wheelchair but also helps parents with strollers and the elderly. It helps the population overall,” she said. Stanley Zima, a parishioner at St. Mary’s in New York Mills, has worked diligently for the past 20 years to help the elderly, sick and disabled get to church. Zima, who is 88 years old, is the president and director of the Heenan Group –– a group of Catholics who volunteer to transport those with special needs to church. The group is named after a school teacher who started the program with her husband more than 30 years ago. At one time there were more than 75 people transported to churches throughout the Utica area. Now, about 40 people are transported to the 9 a.m. Mass held on the first Saturday of the month. Six parishes in the Utica area rotate hosting the Mass, which is followed by a breakfast and social hour. It runs May through October. Zima said that the Mass scheduled for October will probably be the last Mass the Heenan Group sponsors unless he can find someone to take over his responsibilities. “I’m 88 years old,” he said. “My wife has Alzheimer’s and I take care of her at home. My soul belongs to the Lord and to her. I want to find someone to take over running the program.”

Many of the parishes in the diocese offer special services and Masses for people with disabilities on a regular basis. Those interested in finding out more information should contact their parish directly.

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