Learning with Love

VOL 124 NO. 23
Learning with Love
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Sister Beth Ann Dillon,dsmp, talks about a program for the disabled in the Syracuse Diocese.

Opening church doors to everyone includes opening them to persons with disabilities and their families. The Diocese of Syracuse has recently made a commitment to some of the most vulnerable by inviting two sisters of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence (dsmp) to come this fall and begin a catechetical program for those with special needs. Representatives from the religious community visited June 11 and made a presentation to parents and students at Holy Family Church in Fairmount.

Dennis Manning, diocesan director of Catholic Charities, and Mary Lou Coon, a parishioner at Holy Family, have worked through a planning process in order to bring the sisters here. They were both at the presentation. Manning spoke to the group of 35 or so about those who still do not feel “at home” within the Catholic faith. “A fully inclusive church goes beyond a ramp,” he said.

People have been meeting in the four regions of the diocese working on a way to get the Eucharist to people in group homes and other facilities, Manning explained. Having the sisters come to the diocese is a great honor, he said, and he also told the group that the bishop is very enthused about the new program.

The charism of the community is explained in their constitution. The congregation is dedicated “in a particular manner to the care of those whom the Gospel calls Little, that is the weak, the needy, the lonely, the abandoned, the aged, the handicapped and youth, whom they find in particular need, and announce the ‘good news’ to them through the exercise of the Works of Mercy and faith in the Providence of the Father.”

Three of the sisters, including the Mother Vicar, came from Chicago to introduce their philosophy and propose how they can serve within the diocese. They plan to begin by working in a couple of parishes at first assessing what the needs might be, and then they will facilitate and train people to serve as catechists and aides to young people with special needs. The goal, explained Sister Beth Ann Dillon, dsmp, is to bring families and children who may feel alienated back into the church where they belong.

“Young people who are mentally challenged need to be part of the church,” Sister Beth Ann said. “Our church is poor without their presence.”

Sister Beth Ann’s experience includes a degree in special education and in special education administration. Her presentation included the beginnings of the sisters’ work as catechists with special needs children. Their first such project is situated in Vancouver. There, she said, she first met with a group of parents like the group in Syracuse. They wanted more for their children, she said, and they wanted them to be part of their church.

“Parents are the first teachers,” Sister Beth Ann said. “We’re calling the faithful with special needs children and adults. We’re calling them back into the church. We need these people. We need their witness, we need their prayers.”

Sister Beth Ann proposed that older adults and teens make very good aides in programs for those with disabilities. She also proposed that the program begin small, in one or two parishes first, and then it can expand after the foundation is built. Students with special needs from neighboring parishes would be welcome to attend classes in the parish where the sisters will first serve. Currently, Holy Family Church in Fairmount and possibly Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse are most likely the starting points. She believes that the sisters will require the help and enthusiasm of the parish community to thrive.

Mary Lou Coon said that the adults within the community will serve as contacts for the program “by word of mouth and relationship building.” Networking with directors of religious education and others in catechetical service will help the program flourish, she explained.

Relating to each student person-to-person as Jesus did, the sisters explain in their proposal, affords respect for the uniqueness of each person. The catechist or aide will be responsible for developing the skills necessary to teach the special needs persons, but they will be trained accordingly by the sisters. And, Sister Beth Ann, promised, the experience of teaching and aiding students with special needs will be rewarding beyond expectation. Slowly, she said, those who work in the ministry begin to see how Jesus works in their own lives.

Two sisters will arrive in September at the beginning of the catechetical year to begin their ministry. Anyone interested in finding out more about the program may contact Dennis Manning at (315) 424-1830.

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