The Diocese of Orlando has a long history of serving as a pioneer for those with special needs. Beginning with the establishment of Morning Star Catholic School in 1960, it was the first school in the area to offer education for the disabled. Expanding on that desire, Sister Elizabeth Marie Stoup, a Sister of St. Joseph of St. Augustine and Morning Star’s first principal, dreamt of a place where those with special needs entering young adulthood would receive support, love, and a place to live, work and learn. Her idea bore fruit with the help of the late Bishop Norbert Dorsey, in what we now know as Bishop Grady Villas (BGV).
Now the Diocese of Orlando is starting another new initiative to address the needs of the disabled community within the sacramental life of the Church. Henry Fortier, secretary of the Education Secretariat in the Diocese, said he knew there was a gap that needed to be filled when guests from the Down Syndrome Foundation visited Morning Star Catholic School and shared that some of their own children with Downs had not yet been able to receive their Sacraments.
Fortier’s goal is to ensure that those with special needs are active participants in their parish communities because they are an integral part of the Body of Christ.
“We are all God’s children and the Church wants to make sure that none are left out,” said Fortier. “I would like us to be a voice for those who don’t have a voice. We are here, whatever the needs are,” he said.
He has appointed Kathryn Harding, former principal of Morning Star to be the forerunner of this initiative. Harding began at Morning Star as a teacher 42 years ago. She served as the school’s principal from 2002 – 2013 and president from 2013 – 2016. She has spent her professional career serving those with special needs. “Morning Star and these children are very near and dear to me,” said Harding. “They hold a special place for me in my heart.”
Although the task is not a small one, Harding is undaunted. She explained the plan is to equip parishes over the next two years. She plan to visit all of the 91 parishes in the diocese. “I plan to speak to both the pastors and the DREs (directors of religious education) to see if there are special needs students attending the religion classes and if the teachers need any assistance. Of course,” she added, “we know that most of the people teaching are volunteers. So they may or may not have had experience with the special needs population.”
Part of Harding’s responsibilities will be to help parishes with training and helping catechists have the best resources and knowledge to serve those with disabilities to receive the Sacraments. But Harding is just one person, so she has already begun recruiting help from teachers who are especially trained to work with individuals with disabilities.
Visits to parishes will begin in August, starting with those that do not have schools, “because they have no access to resource people that have been trained in Special Ed,” said Harding. Harding is also available to those with an immediate need, such as individuals that cannot be involved in regular faith formation classes. “The diocese truly wants all special needs individuals to be included in the Church to the extent that they can be,” Harding said.
After identifying how many special needs individuals there are in each parish, she will determine their ages and whether or not they are in need of receiving Sacraments. This is the driving force behind this initiative. Spiritual growth, a relationship with Jesus Christ, makes us “partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (#1996).
Harding will also encourage parishes to incorporate the Loyola Press Religion Program “Finding God – An Adaptive Religion Program,” which is used at Morning Star and is specifically written for those with special needs.
Finally, Harding will explore whether or not parishes have support ministries for families of persons with exceptionalities. She would also like to know if these parish members are involved as ushers, greeters, altar persons, creating her own census to enable better assistance throughout. Her desire is to help parishes fully integrate these individuals so they are active participants.
Harding pointed out that, “The diocese really doesn’t know for sure how many people we have with special needs in the diocese and what their needs are.” She added, “I think Orlando is in the forefront of this effort. I am most excited about going out and meeting people in the diocese and encouraging them to have their child or adult with special needs know that we want them in the church; we want them involved as much as possible. The time has come,” she said, “and we are going full speed ahead to get everyone involved in the Church.”