- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
They are one of those families that faithfully shows up for Mass every Sunday. The McCarthys have been involved at St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Leonardtown for about 16 years, Julie McCarthy said Tuesday evening.
Their 20-year-old son, Bryan, however, wasn’t fully involved with the life of the church. “He never received his first communion, and he never was confirmed in the Catholic church,” McCarthy said.
Bryan has autism. And while his mother describes him as relatively high functioning, the materials or the classes or the situation didn’t allow him to attend some critical religious instruction classes.
“Everyone has always been wonderfully accepting, but no one really ever knew where to start,” McCarthy said.
All that has changed.
St. Aloysius launched a special needs ministry this fall to make sure that the church was providing accommodations for those like Bryan and to make sure that all knew they were welcome at the church and welcome to participate.
The church has planned an inaugural special needs Mass on Jan. 5 as part of the new ministry’s kickoff.
“Nothing should get in the way of someone coming to worship the Lord,” said the Rev. John Dakes, pastor at St. Aloysius, as he discussed the new ministry with a couple of the ministry’s committee members, Bonnie Elward of California and Liz Tomaszeski of Leonardtown, at the church rectory on Wednesday.
“There are too many people hidden in our community who may not feel they have access to church because of their special needs situation,” Dakes said.
While there has been a special needs office in the Archdiocese of Washington for a while, St. Aloysius is now taking a closer look at itself and make sure it is doing all it can to incorporate everyone into the church family and to make sure it communicates what is already available and that everyone knows they are welcome — no matter what.
Elward, who has a wide-ranging background in assisting people with special needs, is the coordinator of the new ministry and she was the one who initially talked to Dakes about the church being more purposeful in that area.
“She was certainly the impetus; well, the Holy Spirit working through her,” Dakes said. “I think it is a great idea.”
Elward noted that the percentage of the population with some kind of special need is large. “The U.S. Census says one in every 20 has a special need,” she said.
The church is now looking at things like better wheelchair accessibility, providing a American Sign Language interpreter at Mass, renovating a space where parents can take crying babies during the service so that it could be used by older children who need a separate space for a bit. “If you’re autistic ... have a tendency to shout out, people might feel that would be disruptive,” Dakes said. “But that’s OK. That shouldn’t keep you from coming.”
The church has also begun providing a low-gluten wafer option for the host at communion for those who need to avoid wheat products.
Service dogs are welcome. And as the church prepares to build a new facility, design elements that will make it easier to navigate and use for those with special needs will be considered. That may include a family bathroom for those who need to go in with their older child or another adult to provide assistance. Pews will be arranged so that wheelchairs have easy access.
“We are also trying to establish a transportation ministry,” Dakes said.
And religious education teachers are receiving extra training to better communicate lessons to those with special needs. Bryan McCarthy, for example, is now receiving one-on-one religious education instruction from Tomaszeski, who has decades of experience in special education. “He’s one of those people who will bring so much to the faith,” Tomaszeski said. “You can just see his faith is there and how much he knows.
In her 17 moves as a military wife, she has been involved with special education at a variety of churches. She said that often those with special needs become devoted church members, if only the church provides a way for them. “Their dedication and their faith is a beautiful thing,” Tomaszeski said. “They never missed an event ... I like to see them active in the church; it enriches their lives.”
Dakes pointed out that making sure that all are involved at church also benefits the church as a whole.
“They would come to a recognition that everyone belongs in God’s house ... We are one body in Christ. If one part is missing, everyone needs to reach out,” he said.