Faith Formation for persons with disabilities

By Linda J. Germain
sun contributing writer

OSWEGO — Sister Germaine Hilston, CSJ, who heads the Office of Faith Formation of the Northern Region located in Oswego, has another special calling within the Diocese of Syracuse. For the past 15 years, she has been the Director of Special Education for the religious education students and is responsible for consulting and acting as a resource for Faith Formation teachers who have disabled students in their classes.

Incorporating students with disabilities into religious education classes is challenging according to Sister Germaine, but it is an important goal to work toward and achieve because the diocese invites all students into Faith Formation just as God does.

“It is the desire of the Office of Faith Formation, in all regions of our diocese, to welcome children into our parish programs,” she said, “and this certainly would include all young people with disabilities.  The diocese wants all children to participate and receive the sacraments.”

Currently, the Syracuse Diocese has approximately 50 students with disabilities in its Faith Formation classes.  Those disabilities include autism, Attention Deficit Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, and various learning disabilities.

Sister Germaine stated that Faith Formation teachers are not special education teachers, so they need special assistance helping students with disabilities.  Through her work as a consultant, Sister Germaine provides teachers with reading material about various disabilities, Web site addresses regarding persons with disabilities so that the teacher may do research about how to best serve their students, works with teachers individually to train them to understand persons with disabilities, and provides aides to work in the classrooms with students.

Pat Barnett, a Faith Formation teacher in Oswego, has worked with several students with autism in her religious education classes and finds serving these students to be important.

“I don’t have a problem with students with disabilities in my classes,” she stated. “Having them in class helps all students see that God works in all people.  Students become more open to persons with disabilities when they work with them in Faith Formation classes.”

Barnett also believes that because Faith Formation classes are typically smaller than a public school classroom, teachers are able to focus on the kind of extra help students with disabilities need.

“We have the luxury of small classes which is very helpful,” she said.
Even with the success that the Syracuse Diocese is having with incorporating students with disabilities into Faith Formation classes, it still has much hard work to do.

According to Sister Germaine, a major obstacle involved with trying to incorporate students with disabilities into diocesan religious education classes is that parents don’t know that there is help for their children. Another is that many parents are concerned that their children’s special needs may not get met in the Faith Formation classroom. Sister Germaine continues to develop strategies to help inform parents that the diocese is willing to assist their student in the classroom if they have special needs.  There are plans to advertise in parish bulletins and within Faith Formation registration materials.

“Children and youth with disabilities have the same right to faith formation as any other you person in a parish community,” she stated. “Their needs are just as important as anyone else’s and a disability should never be a deterrent to receiving a sacrament. We want parents to know that we want students with disabilities and will do anything to help them.”

Sister Germaine has special plans for the future of persons with disabilities in Faith Formation classes within the diocese.  Sister Germaine said that religious education classrooms are currently unable to serve students with hearing or visual impairments due to a lack of resources, but is considering incorporating textbooks on tape into the Faith Formation curriculum for students with vision problems.  Sister Germaine stated that it is much harder to serve students with hearing disabilities without an interpreter. She is also hoping to work more closely with all catechists in the diocese rather than just catechetical leaders to help insure that the needs of students with disabilities are met.

“The diocese will do anything to insure that all children receive Faith Formation whatever their disability may be,” Sister Germaine said.
For more information regarding students with disabilities within diocesan Faith Formation classes, Sister Germaine can be contacted at (315) 596-4014, (315) 402-6054, or at

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