Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Faith Communities and Persons with Developmental Disabilities

A Gift of Faith, Family, and Community


Mary Brosseau is Director for Special Religious Education, Diocese of Orange, Orange, California

The Hispanic community in Orange County, California, is rich in faith, in a sense of extended family ties, and in cultural diversity drawing, as it does, from a number of Latin American countries. It also comprises a slight majority of the Catholic population of the Diocese of Orange. Supported by diocesan offices, the parishes in the diocese are involved in ongoing efforts to improve their ability to include Hispanic children with developmental disabilities in religious education and other aspects of church life.

For Hispanic parents of children with developmental or other disabilities, there is a deep desire to be included in the life of the church. “Parents come to me very hungry to get some experience of God for their child,” says Luis Ramirez, Associate Director for Elementary Religious Education for St. Joseph Parish in Santa Ana. “For Hispanic families, the communal dimension of life is so important,” notes Fr. Christopher Smith, pastor at St. Joseph’s. For these reasons, any signs of rejection or exclusion on the part of the church community are devastating.

When parents come to me having had such experiences with religious education classes or staff, to calm the storm I ask parents to think back to a time before their child was born, when they did not know much about children with disabilities and were afraid of the unknown territory they were entering. And I point out that this is how the church staff often feel. Staff may simply not know what to do. We have found the solution is a partnership between church staff who have a knowledge of religious education, and parents, who know their child’s special needs. They must all work together in finding ways to support the religious development of children with disabilities.

When parent advocates, Hispanic religious educators, special educators, and community representatives work together in parish and diocesan teams, they open doors for inclusion. When I came to the diocese 19 years ago as Director of Special Religious Education, we had no Spanish-language religious education materials for persons with developmental disabilities and their families. Since that time, the diocese has worked with families, the Hispanic community, and special educators to remove barriers to participation of Hispanic children with disabilities. Today, we have religious education materials in Spanish for children with special needs and their parents, options for individual assistance and special classes in religious education, guidelines for parish staff that focus on identifying ways to help Hispanic children with disabilities learn about God, and resources for parish leaders.

Ministry Developments

God has blessed the development of this ministry, inspiring parents to advocate, church leaders to respond, community agencies to assist, new resources to be developed, funding to be made available, and good people to volunteer:

  • In 1993, Bishop Jaime Soto, then Director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry, introduced me to three parent advocates who worked for different community agencies serving persons with developmental disabilities. They had formed El Consorcio de Grupos Hispanos del Condado de Orange (The Hispanic Consortium of Orange County). They requested a religious celebration that would support the faith of families of children with developmental disabilities and raise awareness of their needs within the church community. Thanks to this collaboration between parent advocates and the diocese, we have now had eight annual celebrations with as many as 400 in attendance.
  • In 1996, a new special religious education curriculum for use in Catholic churches nationwide was published in memory of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. With the support of the editor, Grace Harding of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Nuria Chekouras, then Associate Director for Family and Child Religious Education for the Diocese of Orange, we developed the Spanish language edition with funding from the Kennedy Foundation, and also produced a parent manual with input from diocesan families.
  • In 1999, the diocese hosted a Spanish language conference for El Programa Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy para Mejorar la Educación Religiosa Católica en Niños y Adultos con Necesidades Especiales (The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program to Improve Catholic Religious Education for Children and Adults with Special Needs). The conference, funded by the Kennedy Foundation, was designed to give participants the understanding needed to foster and support the faith life of persons with developmental disabilities. Follow-up workshops have been presented at the annual Religious Education Conference of the Diocese of Orange.
  • Diocesan and parish staff work with parents to develop participant profiles, asking families, “How can we help your child learn about God?” “Parents need to be able to say who their child is,” says Olivia Cornejo, Associate Director for Family and Child Religious Education. “They need to be able to say what the child is capable of in terms of understanding and behavior.” One strategy being used is to develop a statement asking parents, “Does your child attend special education classes? Do you have a copy of the IEP that we can use?” This opens the door to addressing the particular needs of each child.
  • Teachers and aides are being taught about concrete methods and behavioral strategies for teaching Hispanic children with special needs. It reduces anxiety when they can see that they only need to know how to help this one child, not have expertise in all aspects of special education. Persons with a professional background in special education serve as consultants to the church program in order to develop learning and behavioral strategies and train volunteers. Stan Martin, Coordinator for the Special Religious Education Program at St. Joseph’s, obtains written permission to look at the student’s IEP and talk to his or her teacher. The question he asks is: “How can we tailor our teaching methods for this student’s needs so that he or she will be successful?” Teachers are amazed that there is something else out there for their children and are more than willing to help. Because of the support of Hispanic members of the staff of the diocese, and the volunteer work of Hispanic special educators, the diocese is moving forward in training religion teachers and aides.

As a result, nine parishes now provide religious education in Spanish to children with developmental disabilities. In one of the first, St. Joseph’s Church, it has become a tradition for the students from the program to lead the procession into church on the day they first receive Holy Eucharist. According to Luis Ramirez, “The other parents are amazed by the presence of children with disabilities. When they see how happy they are to receive Communion, they hold them up as an example to their own children.”

Ongoing Advocacy

There is always a need for ongoing advocacy. Fr. Christopher Smith has raised the level of consciousness of his parishioners by references in his sermons to persons with disabilities. Now members of the congregation inform him when someone has a special need. “We have a responsibility,” he says, “to serve all the members of our church, no matter what their language, economic or cultural background, because they are part of the family.” He has observed that some Hispanic families try to keep their child with a disability hidden. “Hispanic parents tend to have a sense of personal responsibility for whatever misfortune befalls anyone in the family. They may believe that God is punishing them for their sins even though they are not sure of what they did to deserve it. When you instruct the parents that this is not how we believe God acts, there is a tremendous sense of relief.”

Statements such as the following from the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops’Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilitiesgive parish staff and parents support and guidance in the inclusion of the children with disabilities in the life of the church:

Pastors are responsible to be as inclusive as possible in providing evangelization, catechetical formation, and sacramental preparation for parishioners with disabilities. Persons with disabilities, their advocates, and families, as well as those knowledgeable in serving disabled persons, can make a most valuable contribution to these programs. Parish catechetical and sacramental preparation programs may need to be adapted for some parishioners with disabilities.

“Parents can use these supports to become strong enough to knock on church doors,” according to Olivia Cornejo. It is through the advocacy and support of parents and professionals and their willingness to partner with diocesan and parish staff and volunteers that Hispanic ministry on behalf of persons with developmental disabilities is moving forward in the Diocese of Orange.