WATERTOWN — Community members gathered at the Elks Club on Friday to celebrate 50 years of the Religious Education Program for People with Disabilities.
Board members, program catechists, and participants addressed attendees during the dinner and dancing event. Program coordinator Sister Diane Marie Ulsamer further explained the benefit of accessibility of religious training for all people and shared the program’s history.
“The program was established in 1972 by the Watertown Catechetical Board with the four Catholic parishes at that time to have unified Catechism classes for children so that all children within the Catholic community would receive the same content,” she said.
Early on, the group determined accommodations needed to be made for disabled children seeking faith-based education through the program, and they took action.
“We started with ten children through JRC (Jefferson Rehabilitation Center) who met with catechists and started to prepare to receive Eucharist with their families on Sundays. Since then, the program has grown,” Sister Diane said. “Children, their families, friends at JRC (now ARC Jefferson — St. Lawrence) who are also family of sorts have benefited through the years by participating in the programming.”
Various activities have kept participants excited about learning, including audiovisual opportunities, easy-to-understand scripture readings and explanations, religious songs, arts and crafts, trips, Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, a large birthday celebration for all in January, community service opportunities, and more.
“They smile and they participate and they are so authentic,” she added. “We truly enjoy sharing time and discussing scriptures and specific topics like the fruit of the holy spirit with the participants. The program gives them a home in the faith community.”
St. Joseph Sister Diane shared that long-time program coordinator Sister Mary Maurice Black “Sister Maurice” worked hard to develop programming beneficial to participants.
“She did a lot of research. She worked with the public school system to identify children with special needs and invited families to participate. She traveled to the homes of families with children who were unable to come to a site program. She eventually realized the need was for both children and adults with special needs.”
Sister Maurice founded and directed the program for 34 years until she retired in 2006. Upon retirement, she was a special religious education volunteer teacher for shut-ins. Sister Maurice died in March at the age of 93 and her contributions were fondly remembered by all at the event.
Hundreds have participated in the programming through the years. Today, there are three components to the program. Friends of Jesus offers Catholic education, there are presently 12 adults enrolled. Interfaith, started at First Presbyterian, Watertown, offers people of all faiths an opportunity to build on their understanding of the scriptures. Outreach services are also offered.
“We have 14 catechists, six of whom visit eight of the ARC houses to do simple storytelling of scriptures, prayer, and singing. It’s interfaith,” Sister Diane said of the outreach portion of the program.
Classes typically run from September to May with 28 lessons each year.
One hundred three people attended the celebration and funds raised at the 50-year event will help support materials, trips, and gifts for participants.
Program committee members hail from St. Patrick’s, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Holy Family, and Saint Anthony’s parishes.
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