Bishop Cunningham meets with committee for Persons with Disabilities

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

Opening the doors of the churches in the Syracuse Diocese to persons with disabilities is an ongoing challenge. There is the matter of accommodating their physical needs, not to mention their educational, spiritual and emotional needs. Parishes have come a long way as far as making their buildings accessible. Retired Bishop James Moynihan made the accessibility issue a priority under his tenure.

Over the past several years the people from all regions of the diocese involved in the ministry at the Office for Ministry with Persons With Disabilities have continued to meet and look for ways to keep their ministry alive. The office currently falls under the Catholic Charities umbrella, but there is no longer a full time director of that office. Every year in September they organize the annual Mass recognizing persons with disabilities. On Nov. 8, a group of advocates and parents met with Bishop Robert Cunningham to explain their history in the diocese and to ask for his support.

A strong committee was formed in 1986, according to original member Rachel Perkins.

“Our main focus then was preparing the persons with disabilities for catechesis and the sacraments,” Perkins told the group. “We were really talking about segregation back then and were just heading towards inclusion.”

Perkins acknowledged that many pastors have made changes since then but she said there are still unresolved areas of accessibility. There was a youth program funded by a non-profit organization and supported by Immaculate Conception in Fayetteville and St. Ann’s in Manlius, Perkins said. The program matched peers with persons with disabilities and they participated in recreational and social activities together. “We actually won a national award with that program,” Perkins explained as she stated the group’s history.

Bishop Cunningham told them he had worked on a committee for persons with disabilities in the Buffalo Diocese and that he absolutely wants to include persons with disabilities fully in all aspects of church life.

“I have been at several churches in the diocese since I arrived and I have been delighted to find readers, greeters and altar servers with disabilities at many of them,” Bishop Cunningham said. “From my limited time here, I have seen the progress you have made. It is important when we look forward to recognize that much has already been done.”

The parents at the meeting expressed their concerns about churches still not being a comfortable place to bring their disabled children. Sister Germaine Hilston, CSJ, directs the religious education program for children with disabilities in the Northern Region of the diocese. She works out of the old St. Mary’s School in Oswego.

“My biggest challenge is getting parents to feel free to bring their children to religious education class,” Sister Germaine told the group. “There is a long history there of them not being included and sometimes they don’t see that it’s better if their child is included.”

One parent expressed his frustration with three different dioceses he has lived in with his family. He and his wife have a 36-year-old daughter currently living in a group home.

“We have felt abandoned by the church,” he said. “We’ve never lost our faith but we’ve never been impressed with the way the Catholic Church handles our daughter’s situation.”

Holy Family Church in Fairmount serves as a home base for two women religious who have come to the diocese to assist in ministry to persons with disabilities, Sister Theresann Gehringer and Sister Caryn Haas, both Daughters of St. Mary of Providence. They were also present at the meeting and Sister Theresann voiced her concerns about accessibility.

“We have religious education teachers who are willing to teach but the Bishop’s Academy needs to be accessible,” Sister Theresann said.

There were representatives from community organizations also present, and they are often the people who help facilitate the services for persons with disabilities. Tom Goslowski from the Central New York Developmental Disabilities Services Office (CNYDDSO) and Barbara Anderson from the Rome office of the CNYDDSO came to share their thoughts as well. Anderson explained that budget cuts over the years brought the consumers out into the communities where they needed to find services and connections, rather than in segregated settings. A religious needs committee was formed to look at ways to get consumers to church so that they could participate.

“We have consumers that go to St. Paul’s in Rome once a month and they love it,” Anderson said.

She said that support needs to come from pastors and from the top and that there are grants available to help make churches handicapped accessible.

Another parent described a program at Holy Family Parish in Vernon. He said that the confirmation class sponsored his daughter’s group home and they all benefited from the socialization experiences the program offered.

“You have given me food for thought,” Bishop Cunningham said. “I do want to be supportive and advocate for full participation for persons with disabilities.”

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