SPAR program assists people with disabilities

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

The SPAR (Special Adult Religious) program has been enhancing the lives of developmentally disabled people in the Syracuse Diocese for the last four years.

It got its start in the fall of 2005 when the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence Order sent two sisters, Sister Theresann Gehringer, DSMP, and Sister Barbara Moerman, DSMP, to the diocese to begin a catechetical program for those with special needs.

Dennis Manning, former diocesan director of Catholic Charities, and Mary Lou Coons, a parishioner at Holy Family Church in Syracuse, worked through a planning process in order to bring the sisters here.

The process began when Coons was inspired by the work of Sister Mary Cepha, PVMI, who taught catechism to developmentally disabled persons at St. John the Baptist Parish in Rome. Coons thought it would be helpful to offer the service to the disabled in Syracuse. She then investigated two other religious communities that served the mentally disabled — one in Pennsylvania, the other in Vancouver, British Columbia. After hearing that the religious order in Pennsylvania was planning on expanding, Coons asked Sister Patricia McCafferty, DSMP, Provincial supervisor of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence based in Chicago, if she could send two sisters to the Syracuse area to serve the disabled. She agreed to send them.

Coons is convinced that her prayers as well as those of the sisters influenced Sister Patricia’s decision.

Coons then contacted Manning about bringing the sisters to the Syracuse Diocese. At that point, Manning approached Bishop James Moynihan with the request. Bishop Moynihan approved the plan and was very supportive of the idea.

Coons contacted Father Frederick Mannara of Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse to ask if he knew of any available housing in the area for the sisters. Father Mannara offered the use of Sarah House for the sisters’ lodging.

Sister Barbara arrived from Chicago, where she worked in a residential facility housing 96 developmentally disabled women in 2005.

Sister Barbara has since been replaced by Sister Caryn Haas, DSMP, who came from Chelsea, Mass. on Sept. 18, 2006. Sister Caryn worked with developmentally disabled women at a respite center in Chelsea.

Sister Caryn said she feels very much at home in Syracuse. She also serves as a pastoral care administrator at Holy Family Parish in Syracuse. She finds pastoral care rewarding and fulfilling but she especially enjoys working with the disabled. “Working with them is a joy,” she said. “They are welcoming and simple.”

Sister Theresann, who serves as director of the SPAR program, came to this area from Vancouver, British Columbia. She taught catechism and provided ongoing instruction for people with special needs for 30 years. “Our mission is to serve the needs of special need adults,” said Sister Theresann.

The sisters strive to bring the charism of Blessed Guanella, who is the founder of their order, into the diocese. Blessed Guanella wanted to reach out to the developmentally disabled and the unwanted and unloved in the world in order to affirm their human dignity.

Coons said she is impressed by the sisters’ prayerful presence. “They are gifted and beautiful,” she said. “Everyone that they come in contact with is touched by their joy and love. They do a beautiful job of meeting the needs of the handicapped.”

Even though Sister Theresann and Sister Caryn started their ministries within Holy Family and Most Holy Rosary Parishes, they are open to consulting with people in other areas of the diocese. Sister Theresann said that parishes in the Utica area have shown an interest in the SPAR program.

The SPAR program’s activities had been based at Holy Family Parish. “It was the most easily accessible for working our programs,” said Sister Theresann.

SPAR is now housed at a recently acquired home on Chapel Drive, located across the street from Holy Family Church. The sisters are getting settled into their new home. The spacious facility is handicapped accessible, featuring large rooms with wide doorways to accommodate wheelchairs. “Holy Family parishioners have been very supportive,” said Sister Thereseann. “In June, they gave us a housewarming shower.”

She is looking forward to the upcoming open house on September 20.

One of SPAR’s activities, the monthly “Super Suppers” will now be held at the new home on Sunday afternoons. The activity features lunch and fellowship followed by a short Bible study, which is then reinforced by a craft project. Sister Thereseann said an average of nine people have been attending the get together.

Sister Caryn administers the SPAR  In-home program. She visits medically-fragile, developmentally-disabled people in their homes.

The SPAR program also facilitates sacramental preparation for persons 16 and older who are not able to participate in a parish-based program. “We believe that everyone who is baptized has a right to the sacraments,” said Sister Theresann. “And, everyone has a right to confirmation. We’ve adapted the curriculum highly to the disabled. It is our pleasure and duty to uncover their spirituality. Their spirituality is very simple and direct.”

Sister Thereseann said that involvement in SPAR has been growing slowly and she hopes that they can begin to serve more people. They would also like to offer Masses at the new facility because she said wheelchairs could be noisy in the church.

“I would like people to open their hearts to the disabled and to ask what needs to be done to help them,” said Sister Thereseann. She anticipates they will need help at the SPAR facility with their newsletter, teaching, food preparation and crafts.

To learn more about the SPAR program, call Sister Thereseann at (315) 474-1745.

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