By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY —Peals of joyous laughter float from the back part of the St. Catherine’s SPRED Center as you knock on the door. Judy Shute, Supervisor of Deaf and Disability Services for Catholic Charities, walks up, smiling broadly as she welcomes the visitor. With all that happy laughter, smiles just happen.
Special Religious Education Development (SPRED), for people with developmental disabilities including Autism, Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, seizure disorders and other diagnoses, forms small parish faith communities welcoming persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As such, they foster inclusion in the larger faith community.
SPRED originated in France in the mid-1950s but found more support outside the country — England, Belgium, Canada and the United States. In 1960, Father James McCarthy, assistant Director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the Archdiocese of Chicago, learned that parents of children with developmental or intellectual disabilities had been flooding the office with letters inquiring about a program to help prepare their children to receive the sacraments. At that time there was none.
Father McCarthy began meeting with parents, special educators and other interested people to explore catechetical materials. Assisted by Society of Helpers Sister Mary Therese Harrington, he discovered the symbolic method of Father Jean Mesny, a priest from Lyon, France. Father Mesny and two priest assistants had realized that a wordy, logical method was completely inappropriate, so they developed an intuitive method. Their method, Vivre, paid more attention to the environment and the sense of the sacred within a community. Father Mesny was then working with a Canadian priest and, upon receiving an invitation from Father McCarthy, they came to Chicago to share Vivre. Sister Mary Therese translated their work into English. That was the birth of the SPRED program in the U.S.
The Vivre Method helped spread SPRED. The method basically involves catechists developing bonds of friendship and deep personal relationships to enable those in the community to discover for themselves the presence of God in their lives, symbolically. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities can learn about their faith, if they can experience it, research has shown. They can realize, sense and experience God, the Church and the sacred.
Patric Lantz, Lead Catechist for the St. Therese North SPRED program, recalled the introduction of SPRED to this diocese. “SPRED was introduced by the then-Diocesan Ministry With Persons With Disabilities by Father Tom Borkowski in 1983,” he said, “as an alternative to the REACH/Together program that was in place for persons with disabilities at the time. He had become familiar with SPRED while in the seminary in Illinois, as SPRED originated in the Archdiocese of Chicago. When Father Tom was ordained, Bishop (John) Sullivan appointed him to head up the diocesan ministry with persons with disabilities. In 1984, the Diocese piloted the first SPRED center at St. Charles Parish. The first center was set up for children 6 to 10 years old. There were 6 children in the program, each paired up with a helper catechist. The center also included a leader catechist and an activity catechist. Several of these children remained with SPRED for more than 20 years, moving into appropriate age groups as they became older. SPRED was the community that allowed them to build and share their faith, and more fully build them into fuller participation in the parish families.”
At St. Catherine’s, eight members gathered March 31 for community, catechesis and cake and ice cream. There are 12 sessions each year. Many have participated for years. Sean, 32, has been a member since 2003; Warren, 44, joined in 1991. Elizabeth, 35, has participated since 2001; Jonathon, 42, since 1993, and ReAnna, 34, since 1998. Both Robert, 55, and Frank, 49, have participated since 1987. Joe joined in 2013.
Each participant is paired with a catechist, or special friend —John and his wife Jeanette, Jennifer, Joe, Carol, Pat and Judy Shute joined in activities including coloring with crayon or markers, clipping magazine photos and making posters, puzzles and a slinky. Father Bob Kerr, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena, also serves as a catechist, but was unable to be there that evening. Judy said the activity, a kind of ice breaker, lasts about 40 minutes, then the group cleans up and puts things away. Throughout the activity and clean up, waves of laughter punctuated by giggles, billowed around the room.
The group gathered in a silent circle while John, as lead catechist, approached each member with a personal message of welcome, friendship and love. He then asked the group if they wanted to pray for anyone in particular, and almost everyone had a special intention.
A very brief Bible verse was read and the circle segment concluded with John saying, “We’ve all become very good friends over the years. We love each other. Give thanks to the Father with me. Jesus fills us with joy.”
Each member was given a chore at session’s end — setting or clearing the table; washing or drying dishes; placing vases of flowers on the table or wrapping them in foil to take home. Cake, ice cream and juice were shared by everyone: members and catechists. Laughter floated around, those not laughing smiled broadly. It was reminiscent of a birthday party.
St. Charles SPRED Center was founded in 1984 and now counts seven people, ages 10 – 32, members. The program is unique in that multiple age groups are represented, while at the other centers, the members are all adults.
Jim Cleary, lead catechist and parish program director, had volunteered for a similar program while in college. Twenty one years ago, St. Charles Parish was looking for catechists and helpers, and “my wife volunteered me,” Cleary recalled. As soon as scheduling allowed him to, he agreed to help, and at the first gathering, “I was hooked.”
The group meets in a dedicated classroom at St. Charles. Cleary uses a curriculum program geared to ages 11-17 as it provides more challenges, which the “kids” enjoy.
They follow the same format as the adult programs: activity, catechesis, celebration and chores, but no two nights are the same, he said. He thought for a moment about special memories of the last 21 years. The bishop visited us several years ago, he said. That was a highlight.
SPRED now serves 28 dioceses and more than 200 parishes in this country, including four centers in this diocese: St. Charles, St. Therese North, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Thomas More. A fifth center in the Lee’s Summit area is expected to open in the fall. There are also more than 200 small parish groups in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, South Africa, Malta and Mexico.
The Chicago SPRED office provides a syllabus, newsletters, enrichment opportunities, mentoring, and a support network to catechists and families. Training for catechists is on the job, but SPRED sessions are so fulfilling, catechists return year after year. Judy Shute has served the St. St. Catherine’s SPRED group for 28 years; Jon for 11 and the rest are somewhere in between. Father Bob Kerr has been pastor of the parish for two years, so his service time is the shortest.
Through age appropriate curricular activities and catechesis members with special needs are prepared to receive the Sacraments of Holy Communion, Reconciliation and Confirmation in their parish. Members enjoy connecting and communicating with peers through smiles and laughter, drawing pictures and sharing prayer and cake or cookies, and chores.
When parents arrived to pick up their children, hugs passed all around. Elizabeth looked back at the emptying room and announced, “I come back!”
No matter which parish SPRED program they belong to, members will all return to loving laughter and light.