WARWICK — On a quiet Tuesday evening, volunteer catechists busily prepare for a class in the school building behind St. Benedict Church in Warwick. The classroom is set up to resemble a home, with a kitchen, living room and soft lighting throughout, and the volunteers place sensory items like blocks and seashells on the tables as they go over the evening’s schedule. When the first student arrives, a volunteer is there to meet him at the door, taking his coat and greeting him by name.
Though the volunteers are all trained in catechesis, this is no ordinary CCD class. St. Benedict’s serves as one of 14 parish centers in the diocese for Special Religious Education, or SPRED, a program operated by the Apostolate for People with Disabilities and partially funded by donations to the annual Catholic Charity Appeal. SPRED serves those with developmental disabilities and their families by offering sacramental preparation and community formation in a comfortable liturgical setting.
“It’s not just that we talk about God,” said Irma Rodriguez, director of the Apostolate for People with Disabilities. “We live God, we show it to them. They need somewhere they can know, ‘This is a stable place for me.’”
Participants, referred to as “friends,” attend monthly sessions with volunteers and others in their age group during which they prepare for the lesson, participate in a liturgy and share a celebratory meal. SPRED sessions use a catechetical method first developed in the Archdiocese of Chicago in the 1960s by which volunteers use stories and symbols to convey the love of Jesus Christ and the message of the week’s Gospels to the participants.
“We form a community by sharing our stories,” explained Rodriguez. “Our Catholic tradition is based on stories. By sharing out stories, we’re sharing our life. We come together in a special way and it becomes sacred.”
The diocesan SPRED program arose in the early 1970s out of the work of Msgr. Gerard Sabourin and Colleen Touchette, original director of the Apostolate for People with Disabilities. During an interview at a monthly Mass for those with special needs celebrated at the Father Marot CYO Center in Woonsocket, Msgr. Sabourin recounted working with the mother of a disabled child in his parish to prepare the girl for her sacraments. He became aware of the great need in the diocese for a standard religious education program for those with disabilities and approached Bishop Russell McVinney with his concerns.
“I told Bishop McVinney, we should be doing something. Something has to be done. ‘Then do it,’ he said. ‘I want you out of parish work and doing this.’”
As first chaplain to the Apostolate for People with Disabilities, Msgr. Sabourin helped to establish SPRED programs at parishes throughout the diocese and advocate for the needs of those with disabilities across the state. The program grew quickly. By offering participants a safe space where they can learn about the liturgy and sacraments, SPRED prepares individuals for full participation in the Mass and works to integrate them into the larger faith community.
“That’s our main goal,” said Rodriguez. “For them to be integrated into our liturgical experience like everyone else.”
While some sectors of Church ministry have struggled with numbers in recent years, SPRED has continued to grow as individuals with disabilities and their family members seek out opportunities to engage in their Catholic faith. In some parts of the state, participants exceed the number of volunteers and spaces available to them. As Msgr. Sabourin explained, the teaching method used calls for one-on-one engagement between catechists and participants, so the program relies heavily on volunteers.
“We don’t do this program unless we do it well,” he said. “Numbers is not out game. There’s a great need today, more than before, to have parishes and parishioners help us in our work.”
The program could be seen in action at St. Benedict’s, where volunteers sat down one by one with participants and joined them in quiet activities to create a calm atmosphere. When all had arrived, a lead catechist called participants by name to another area, where they heard a reading and shared stories about how the Gospel message applied to their lives. Every SPRED session closes with a celebratory meal where catechists and friends participate in the Body of Christ by preparing the table and breaking bread.
“It goes through the process of the liturgy,” explained Rodriguez. “The catechist is always a model. You’re modeling for them.”
Among the participants of the St. Benedict’s group was 27-year-old Glen Bradshaw, a parishioner of Holy Apostles Church, Cranston, who first joined SPRED to prepare for his sacraments at the age of eight. Though he received his First Communion and Confirmation many years ago, he continues to participate in the program in addition to attending weekly Mass.
“He just loves everything about it,” said his mother, Lois. “He loves the people, he loves the fellowship, he loves being around other people with special needs.”
Though the program is always in need of additional volunteers and funds, as well as handicapped-accessible spaces in which to hold sessions, Rodriguez is optimistic that SPRED will continue to grow under the direction of Father Richard Narciso, recently appointed chaplain of the Apostolate for People with Disabilities. SPRED strives to meet a need for greater integration of those with special needs, offering opportunities for engagement in the Church community and society at large.
“We don’t know what we’re doing in the lives of these people, but we’re doing something,” she said. “If some of these kids are not here, there’s a section of the body of Christ that is missing.”
During the celebration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to be particularly attentive to ways they may exhibit God’s mercy by serving the needs of those in their communities and around the world. To offer a donation to help the numerous ministries served by the annual diocesan Catholic Charity Appeal, please visit: https://providencediocese.thankyou4caring.org