A very special First Communion

gracie fc 2 copy

gracie fc 2 copyA very special First Communion
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor

   With her father’s hands guiding her and her mother and sister gathered close, Graceanne D’Alberto received an incredibly special gift last Saturday: her first Holy Communion. For many years, it was a moment her family never thought they’d see.

   When Mark and Bethany D’Alberto brought their first daughter Gracie home from the hospital nine years ago, she weighed just five pounds and swam in clothes meant for preemies. A complication in the womb, called intrauterine growth restriction, had delayed Gracie’s development. Doctors and her parents were unsure what it would mean for the little girl long-term.

   “We knew there was a complication, but there are kids [with the same complication] who end up perfectly normal,” Bethany recalled. “In the beginning, the doctors thought she might be just fine. But at 11 months she wasn’t sitting up or crawling or hitting any of the markers that she was supposed to.”

   That’s when Gracie’s first therapies started, along with the first of many tests. Today Gracie can walk short distances with support from an adult or her walker. She says “Mama” and “Dada” and signs “more” when she wants another Triscuit, her favorite snack. She’s calmer thanks to Frankie, the service dog the D’Albertos brought home last year. She enjoys when her little sister Cecilia, 7, reads Dora the Explorer books to her and helps her eat. But doctors from Syracuse to the National Institutes of Health are still unable to find a syndrome or condition that captures Gracie’s complex array of physical and cognitive disabilities.

   Not knowing what the future holds for Gracie can be hard for this tight-knit family.

   “We live day-to-day because we don’t know if there’s going to be a next week, next month, next year,” Bethany said. They make the most of each moment they spend together, decorating for every holiday and celebrating the small things.

   They are also fixtures at the 7:30 a.m. Mass on Sundays at St. Margaret’s Church in Mattydale. Bethany has been a parishioner at the church since she was four and her faith has always been an important part of her life.

   “Everyone has watched Gracie grow up there, and they accept her as a full member of the church,” Bethany said. “We make it a point each Sunday to bring up both girls — and Frankie — at Communion time to be blessed by Father. We love seeing her enjoy such a safe and loving environment.”

   Mark, who kneels with Gracie on his lap each week at Mass, feels she does have a sense of what the Sunday service means.

   “She’s not really going to digest the information like other children, but she knows she’s going somewhere special every week. She knows something special is happening.”

   About two years ago, Father Robert Hyde, pastor at St. Margaret’s, and Theresa Vaga, director of faith formation, approached the D’Albertos about preparing Gracie to receive First Communion.

   “It was something we always kind of figured was beyond her realm,” Bethany said. “She can’t, on the same level as everyone else, understand what the process is, what it really means. But Father said he wanted her to be able to participate as fully as she could.”

   Gracie was not able to make First Communion last year, because the family was in Ohio picking up Frankie the service dog. Waiting until this year, however, made the process even more of a family affair, with Gracie and Cecilia preparing for the sacrament together.

   Cecilia attended weekly faith formation classes, while the D’Albertos mostly worked with Gracie at home, praying together at night and reading religious books. The whole family, along with the other First Communion families, baked bread together on a Saturday and enjoyed a family-style meal, which Gracie loved.

   As happy as Bethany was that Gracie was being given such a special gift, she admits she got caught up in the details of making the event happen.

   “I was in the throes of coordinating the tasks and really looking at it as an event to get through, kind of a hurdle for Gracie,” she said.

   An article in the Boston Globe about a boy with autism making his bar mitzvah gave her a new perspective. The boy’s mother worked hard to give him his Jewish rite of passage, a special celebration just for him.

   “The meaning clicked with me,” Bethany said. “This is Gracie’s one white dress. She won’t graduate school, she won’t be married, and this is the only celebration that she may have that is focused around her.”

   More than 30 children processed into St. Margaret’s on Saturday morning, the boys in ties and the girls in long white dresses. Cecilia’s dress and long veil sparkled. Just behind her, Gracie, wearing an elegant gown with a simple bow at the waist, and Frankie, decked out in a bejeweled collar, was wheeled in by Vaga. Throughout the Mass, Gracie sang and clapped to the music. Finally, with Bethany and Cecilia beaming behind her, Mark helped Gracie stand in front of the priest who had blessed her every Sunday for years and receive her first Eucharist.

   As the First Communion class gathered for a group photo following Mass, Gracie’s joy was obvious. Standing with her father, her sister’s arm around her, Gracie broke into a beautiful smile.

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