For Kathy Livaudais, a painting inside the St. Rita parish center in Harahan says it all: It shows Christ the Good Shepherd going to the edge of a cliff to rescue a lone lamb encircled by wolves.
Livaudais, who retired in May after teaching children with special needs in Jefferson Parish public schools, had encountered numerous lost and innocent sheep in her classroom. Many of her Catholic students were growing up unchurched, with no access to the sacraments or any sense of who God was.
“It is difficult to get their parents invested in Sunday Mass,” said Livaudais, a St. Rita extraordinary minister of holy Communion. “They are hesitant because they feel everyone is looking at their children. They are embarrassed or they don’t feel welcomed.”
So Livaudais was thrilled to see a note in her church bulletin in summer 2012 asking for ideas on how to increase the involvement of those with disabilities and their families. This past school year, she and three other volunteer catechists launched St. Rita’s inaugural year of religion classes for children with special needs, drawing four youngsters with challenges including autism.
Conducted separately from the parish’s regular CCD program of about 70 students, the special classes take place on Saturday mornings. The teachers work one-on-one with the children, basing the length of each class – 25 minutes to an hour – on the special needs of each child.
They explored a dozen topics, including how God loves his children and keeps them safe; God’s creation and our responsibility for it; and Jesus as a friend and “present from God” to whom we can talk.
All are welcome
“It was a dream I had,” said Sandy Hemmingway, the St. Rita parishioner who spearheaded the effort to welcome more families with special needs as a member of the archdiocesan Persons with Disabilities Committee.
Hemmingway, who has a rare breathing disorder, knew firsthand of the fears those with mental and physical challenges encountered in all areas of parish life.
“I was told by some people that I should stay in the background,” she said, adding that she was humbled when her former pastor, Father Herbert Kiff, invited her to be a sacristan seven years ago. “It made me feel so good that I could do something and be involved in the church because so many (disabled) people feel like they can’t come forward; you’re embarrassed sometimes; you’re afraid you’re going to make a mistake or that people will judge you if you make a crazy sound.”
With the enthusiastic support of their pastor, Father John Arnone, and coordinator of religious education Erin Maffe, Hemmingway and Livaudais purchased special curricula with the help of donations from St. Rita KC 3845 and an anonymous Catholic organization.
Because their non-verbal students were unable to use the “Finding God” series used by students in regular CCD classes, they ordered Loyola Press’ picture-based adaptive reconciliation and first Communion kits, in which prayers such as the Sign of the Cross are illustrated via graphics depicting the Holy Trinity.
Pupils guided, step by step
The reconciliation kit takes children through the acknowledgment of sin – with a sad face depicting the idea of regret over a bad choice – to saying “I am sorry” and being forgiven. Students also are given pictorial examples of bad choices – signified by a thumbs-down – like littering, ignoring others and fighting. The good choices Christ wants us to make, such as sharing, helping others and making peace, get the thumbs up.
The guides are designed so that children can take them into the confessional and point to their problem area, if necessary.
“It’s also a good tool for the priest to have if the child is non-verbal,” Livaudais said.
Still feeling they needed additional materials to teach their students about God, the team purchased the St. Mary’s curriculum, which presents religious education entirely in pictures.
“I worked with autistic children, so I knew about the picture-communication system,” said Livaudais, explaining that children work one-on-one with their teachers to place pictures on a Velcro board to learn and express basic concepts. For example, to teach the idea of “God loves me,” they place an illustration of God – a cloud scene – on the board, followed by a heart (love) and a photo of himself or herself.
Bible stories, sticker projects and children’s books hammer home each religious education theme, while take-home stories students read with their parents before Mass examine topics such as “What is a sacrament?” and “What do we do at church?” The latter story includes an actual photograph of St. Rita Church and graphics showing congregants singing, talking to God, being quiet and assuming the various liturgical postures of sitting, standing and kneeling.
The team of St. Rita special ed catechists, which also includes Pat Trahan and Sharon Grilletta, had the thrill of seeing one of their students receive his first reconciliation and holy Communion last spring.
Children are considered ready for Communion once they have one minimal understanding: The Eucharist is not regular food, but God. In preparation, the teachers use a picture board pointing out the difference between the host and an apple or cheese. Another board depicts the steps in receiving the sacrament: waiting in line, cupping the hands, saying “Amen,” receiving and eating the host, and thanking Jesus afterward.
Every triumph celebrated
Livaudais said their first communicant, a 10-year-old boy with autism, initially struggled with the texture of the host while practicing with unconsecrated ones. By the time of his first Communion he was able to consume one-fourth of the wafer without complaint.
“Since then he has taken the whole host,” Hemmingway said, recalling how no less than 30 members of the boy’s family turned out for his first Communion Mass.
“They were so proud of him,” she said. “It touched my heart because they could experience Jesus with their son at Mass. They wanted him to be able to receive Jesus!”
An information meeting for parents seeking religious education classes for their special needs children will be held Aug. 23 at 9:30 a.m. at St. Rita’s Msgr. Champagne Parish Center at Jefferson Highway and Ravan Avenue, Harahan.
The program also is seeking teens to serve as volunteer faith mentors for the special needs students.
For more information, email Livaudais at email@example.com or contact St. Rita’s church office at 737-2915.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ORE: Four archdiocesan parishes have established religious ed programs for children with special needs
In addition to St. Rita, Harahan, three other parishes in the Archdiocese of New Orleans reported to the Office of Religious Education (ORE) that they offered a segregated program of religious education classes for young Catholics with special needs:
• Our Lady of Divine Providence in Metairie launched its program in the 1970s;
• Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville has had one in place for 15 years (and also offers a Bible study for adults with special needs);
• St. Luke the Evangelist in Slidell has had a program for three years.
In the absence of a segregated program, many parish schools of religion welcome into their regular classrooms, one or two at a time, students who “struggle to learn for whatever reason,” said Barbara McAtee, the ORE’s associate director of elementary and secondary catechesis in parishes.
“I am working to train our catechists with teaching strategies and other resources so that when possible and appropriate, students with special needs can be included in our classrooms,” McAtee said.
St. Francis Xavier Church, 444 Metairie Road, Metairie, is the site of the “God’s Special Children Mass” on the first Sunday of the month at 2 p.m. All liturgical helpers, including readers, gift bearers and altar servers, are children, teens or adults with special needs. The Masses are celebrated by Father Mike Mitchell, pastor of Our Lady of Divine Providence, with refreshments provided by the Knights of Columbus and the Daughters of Isabella.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, along with concelebrants Father Mitchell and Msgr. Andrew Taormina, will mark the 10th anniversary of the special Masses Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. at St. Francis Xavier.
A similar Mass celebrating the gifts of adults with disabilities is celebrated twice a year at Mary Queen of Peace Church, 1501 West Causeway Approach, Mandeville. The Masses are sponsored by the parish school of religion.
– Beth Donze