St. Peter formation program a vital ministry for autistic students

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WARWICK — Since October 2008 a most special group of catechetical students from near and far has sought out a nurturing faith formation program that tailors its program to their strengths, paving their path to receiving the sacraments of initiation with joy.

Through the dedication of St. Peter Church Pastor Father Roger Gagne and Faith Formation Coordinator Margaret Andreozzi, St. Peter’s Autism and the Sacraments program has met a growing need unlike any standard faith formation program can.

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Designed with the individual needs of students on the autism spectrum in mind, classes are a manageable 45 minutes in length and meet twice per month on Saturdays.

Each class is divided evenly into three, 15-minute segments. In the first quarter hour students learn the lesson of the day, while in the second they reinforce it by completing a related project. For the remainder of the class, students spend time praying in church and receiving the Eucharist if they’ve already made their first Communion.

Students have ranged in age from 7 to 20, and have even included sets of twins, triplets and a brother and sister learning together.

The program is a highly visual one and provides an optimal learning environment for the students, some of whom do not speak at all, while others are high functioning. Among the extensive preparations they make for their students, the volunteer teachers prepare laminated prayer sheets containing both text and pictures to help make learning easier for them.

“There’s nothing else out there for our kids,” said Andreozzi, of the uniqueness of the St. Peter Parish Autism and the Sacraments program. “Some people don’t even know we’re available so we have to wave that flag to let them know we’re here.”

In addition to providing students with a learning environment in which they can feel comfortable and thrive as they deepen their faith, the program also serves as an oasis and resource for their parents, many of whom travel many miles from across Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts to St. Peter.

While their sons and daughters are gathered for class, parents bond over coffee in a nearby room where they share their experiences.

When nine students completed their formation in the spring — a full year after making their confirmation to allow them additional time to remain part of the St. Peter program — the occasion was bittersweet for many families, as well as teachers.

“They are aging out of the system; we’ve got nothing to offer them,” Andreozzi said of the sadness felt by many students and parents who looked forward to gathering through the years for learning and fellowship.

“They want to stay beyond confirmation.”

Lincoln Davis, a parishioner at St. Pius V Parish in Providence, was one of the parents who admitted to feeling a bit lost when his son John Paul, 16, aged out of the program a few months ago.

“He started in the fall of 2009. He was able to make his first Communion and confirmation last spring,” Davis said.

Now, following the extra post-confirmation year, John Paul’s time in the program has come to an end.

“It breaks my heart to leave these people,” he said at the time, with tears in his eyes.

Michael and Tammy Perugino, parishioners at Holy Apostles Parish in Cranston, enrolled their triplets — Michael, Dillon and Brandon — in the program last year.

“This program is unbelievable, it’s the best thing for kids,” Tammy Perugino said.

She explained how Father Gagne’s and the teachers’ patience and understanding puts everyone at ease.

If a student talks or acts out because of their disorder, even during the abbreviated Masses tailored to their needs, no one tells them not to cry or talk or move about.

“They just overlook that,” she said.

Lori Johnson, who taught Brandon last spring in her religion class, said the strength of the St. Peter program is found in its specific understanding of how children with autism learn.

“We modify the catechism and bring it to their level,” Johnson said.

Mary Catanese has helped to lead the Autism and the Sacraments program since its beginning.

“It’s extremely rewarding and faith-filled,” she said. “You can see how much the students grow.”

Andreozzi says she hopes that someone from the world of autism education will come forward to help her to design a continuing faith education curriculum so that students on the spectrum can remain active learners even after they’ve completed the existing programming.

To date, 30 students have received their first Communion and 16 have received the Eucharist and confirmation through the program.

Andreozzi is hoping to spread the word about their special ministry so that anyone in need of the nurturing services they provide can enroll their children in the Autism and the Sacraments program.

“It’s always personal,” says Father Gagne, of the service his parish provides to the special learners who are always welcomed with open arms.

“The autism spectrum is increasing,” he said of the rising number of students being diagnosed and in need of special attention, especially in the area of faith formation. “Autism is not going away anytime soon.”

“They’re our kids. We love them.”