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Catechists awarded Medal

Mel Flanagan | Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The three founders of the Special Religious Education Development Network (SPRED) were shocked to find out they were this year’s recipients of the Laetare Medal, Sr. Mary Therese Harrington said.


The University will present the medal to Harrington, Sr. Susanne Gallagher and Fr. James McCarthy at the University Commencement ceremony this May.

The medal, established at Notre Dame in 1883, is the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics. It is awarded annually to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity,” according to a University press release.

Harrington said the Laetare Medal will bring much-needed recognition to their organization, which provides religious education for parishioners with intellectual disabilities.

“Our work is very hidden because not too many people pay that much attention to people with disabilities,” Harrington said. “The fact that someone thought we were doing a good job just blew us away. … That’s very affirming for us.”

McCarthy, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago, first conceived the idea for SPRED in 1960 when he read letters from parents expressing their difficulty in finding ministries for their children with intellectual disabilities, Harrington said.

He began working on the project in his off time, and in 1963 Harrington joined McCarthy when he requested a member of her congregation, the Society of Helpers, for assistance.

“Theology for people with intellectual disabilities was very bleak, you teach them their prayers and that was about it,” Harrington said. “So many had a capacity, but you had to figure out a different way.”

The pair began to work with Catechist volunteers to implement a more contemplative and liturgical approach to religious education better suited to people with these disabilities, Harrington said. She said they based the approach off the prior research and practice of French priests from Lyons, France and Quebec, Canada.

“We didn’t know how to introduce [the method] to the [United States],” Harrington said. “We started working in rooms with one-way viewing mirrors. The volunteer catechists could observe us working, then do the same thing.”

Gallagher, a member of the Sisters of Providence, joined the organization in 1967 to design a Montessori environment for the groups. With the environment, syllabus and observational teaching method in place, SPRED began multiplying its centers across the United States the following year, Harrington said.
Today the Chicago SPRED center has trained volunteers for 156 parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago, 15 other dioceses in the country and parishes in Australia, South Africa, Scotland and other English-speaking nations.

“What [the Catechists] are really looking for is the basic mentality or basic attitude toward people with intellectual disabilities that is very respectful but can go outside the box to figure out ways to include them in worship settings,” Harrington said.

The SPRED groups in each parish function with six “friends,” or people with disabilities, and six sponsors, the volunteer catechists. Each group has a parish chairperson who is accountable to the parish priest.

In this way, Harrington said SPRED is very parish-based and parish-operated. She, McCarthy and Gallagher serve as resource people for the individual groups.
Harrington said SPRED also offers continual training at its center, where catechists can continue to observe teaching methods and discuss difficulties they are experiencing.

“It’s a very trim, decentralized operation,” Harrington said. “We can keep it moving well and quickly because it is decentralized.”

The sponsors at each parish meet once per week, Harrington said. During the first week they prepare a syllabus for the second week, when they put on a two-hour class for their friends. At the third week’s session, the catechists reflect on the previous class and ways they can improve it for the following week, when the friends attend class again.

The goal of the sessions is four-fold, Harrington said. The catechists aim to instill within the individuals a sense of the sacred, a sense of Christ, a sense of the Father and a sense of the Spirit as living within the Church.

“We’re not working with heavy duty concepts, we’re dealing with much more intuitive and contemplative aspects,” Harrington said. “We use a lot of the arts, like music, gestures, silence, to illustrate points.”

To aid parents of the intellectually disabled, Harrington said the volunteers try to educate their children to a level where they are able to participate in a normal worship setting.

“Some families are afraid to bring their children to Church because they have been treated disrespectfully there,” she said. “The child is not prepared, and the assembly is not prepared.”

SPRED works to overcome that, Harrington said. In addition to preparing the disabled individuals for worship, she said many parishes have installed several liturgies throughout the year that may appeal to those who are intellectually disabled.

Although some people have criticized the process as too labor-intensive, Harrington said the method has proven successful.

“There’s no other way to do a good job for people with intellectual disabilities,” she said. “Families are very happy. [The individuals] come in as little children, and they’re still with us in their 20s and 30s.”

Other critics claim the organization is wasting its time attempting to teach people with disabilities, Harrington said. She said fortunately, not all within the Church view it that way.

In a press release, University President Fr. John Jenkins praised SPRED’s commitment to educating people with disabilities.

“Insisting that a developmental disability neither tempers Christ’s invitation nor restricts one’s right to respond, they have ushered countless people to their rightful place at the Eucharistic table,” Jenkins said.

Being awarded the 2013 Laetare Medal allows SPRED to demonstrate the fruits of its efforts to others, Harrington said.

“We see there’s a real person inside, and they really respond,” she said. “Not in a way a regular child would, but in their own way.”