Sisters minister to intellectually disabled people, offer catechesis

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Daughters of St. Mary of Providence

By Joseph Albino

N.Y. (CNS) — In the nautical world, a “spar” is the straight pole used to
support the sails and rigging of a ship.

the world of faith and the ministry of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence
in the Syracuse Diocese, SPAR is the support offered to Catholics with
intellectual disabilities to help them to recognize the presence of God in
their daily lives and to act in light of the Gospel message.

sisters’ Special Adult Religious Formation Program apostolate, better known as
SPAR, operates in accordance with the Catholic Church’s teaching that “all
baptized persons with disabilities have a right to adequate catechesis and
deserve the means to develop a relationship with God.”

Syracuse, the sisters concentrate on offering support for older teens and
adults with intellectual disabilities who, when they were of school age, were
not able to receive the sacraments of reconciliation, Eucharist and
confirmation. They are offered a catechetical program designed with them in

foundation of the sisters’ apostolate is “respect for life and dignity of every
human person,” according to the sisters’ Guanellian ethics code, named for the
congregation’s co-founder, St. Louis (Luigi) Guanella.

hope to contribute to the good of every person who must be helped to live his
or her life with conditions that require support, attention and care,” the code
says. “The centrality of every human person continues over time and cultural
changes in our world today.”

Congregation of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence traces its roots to
1881 when a group of young women in the community of Pianello del Lairo, near
Como, Italy, wanted to pursue a ministry for needy individuals including those
with disabilities. They rented a house, which they eventually were able to buy,
and named it the Little House of Divine Providence and began an apostolate
modeled on the Gospel example of the good Samaritan.

house became known as “Noah’s Ark,” because the sisters took in orphans, young
working women looking for a place to live, people living with epilepsy, the
elderly and those living with intellectual disabilities, among others.

Daughters of St. Mary of Providence came to the U.S. in 1913, arriving in
Chicago. Being Italian themselves, the first sisters to arrive assisted Italian
immigrants. They established a motherhouse in Chicago for the congregation’s
U.S. province and opened a residential facility for intellectually disabled

congregation has different missions in various countries, but in the U.S., the
sisters made their primary concern caring for and teaching the faith to those with
intellectual disabilities.

also minister to the elderly in nursing homes and those in assisted living and
independent living arrangements. Some
of the sisters also may serve in parishes as teachers and directors of
religious education programs and as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion
to provide the Eucharist to the homebound. In years past, they taught in Catholic
elementary schools.

the order became established in Chicago, it spread to East Providence, Rhode
Island; Syracuse, New York; Sleepy Eye, Minnesota; Milbank, South Dakota; and
Elverson, Pennsylvania, where the sisters operate a retreat center. The U.S.
province now encompasses Mexico and the Philippines. There are more than 500
sisters around the world.

congregation has a male counterpart, the Servants of Charity, founded in 1908.
Its priests and brothers pursue similar apostolates in various countries. In
the United States, they serve in Chelsea, Michigan; Springfield, Pennsylvania;
and Providence, Rhode Island.

Daughters of St. Mary of Providence were invited to come to the Diocese of
Syracuse at the invitation of the late Bishop James M. Moynihan because of a
Holy Family Church parishioner, Mary Lou Coons, who was seeking a way to help
the intellectually disabled, often praying before the Blessed Sacrament for an

answer to her prayers, she felt God led her to the Daughters of St. Mary of
Providence. She communicated with them through emails and visits and then
brought them to the attention of diocesan officials.

of the sisters have a home near Holy Family Church in Fairmount, a western
suburb of Syracuse.

was because of her faith and perseverance in prayer before the Blessed
Sacrament and her love for the intellectually disabled that Mary Lou Coons
searched and found a community that served that category of persons,” said
Sister Caryn Haas, one of the three sisters.

Haas provides pastoral care for the homebound, which includes helping families
prepare for the baptism of their children or for other sacraments through
monthly classes. She also can make arrangements for the homebound to receive
the Eucharist.

of the sisters, Sister Beth Ann Dillon, teaches religion at nearby Bishop
Ludden High School and also is campus minister there. Another, Sister Arlene
Riccio, schedules faith activities for people with intellectual disabilities
on the first floor of the sisters’ residence, called the SPAR Center.

those adults with intellectual disabilities who have received religious and
sacramental education through their parishes, SPAR offers a continuing
formation program once a month to help deepen the faith planted and grown in
their families and parishes.

the head of the SPAR apostolate, Sister Riccio strives to deepen the faith of
those with intellectual disabilities whom she encounters in parishes in the
greater Syracuse area.

addition, for those individuals whose disabilities make classroom learning
difficult, Sister Riccio offers small group or one-on-one sessions in a
sacramental preparation program. The individuals with intellectual disabilities
come to the meetings from a number of different parishes in the area as well as
from group homes.

who live at home are invited regularly to monthly meetings at the SPAR center
through a phone call or a mailed flier.

may be held once a week for those individuals who are preparing to receive any
of the Sacraments. Often, a sister will go to the home of a person with
intellectual disabilities who may not be able to attend a regularly scheduled
meeting because of transportation and/or health problems.

Riccio’s other goals through the SPAR apostolate include going to group homes
to teach general spirituality to residents who are Christian and to teach the
Catholic faith to those who are Catholic. Another goal is to line up volunteers
who could assist group home residents to go to a church of their choice for
Sunday services.

in SPAR programs have different levels of capability, ranging from needing just
a little bit of help to needing to learn the difference between ordinary bread
and the consecrated eucharistic bread for Communion.

need to be taught that reverence is called for at church. Those with
intellectual disabilities can be prepared to receive the sacrament of
reconciliation if they are able to tell right from wrong and know to confess
committing an act that was wrong.

materials Sister Riccio uses include the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program, the
recognized full curriculum for people with intellectual disabilities, and
“Seasons of Grace,” which concentrates on the church’s seven sacraments. Loyola
Press of Chicago also offers an adaptive religious education program in the
faith and in the sacraments.

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