Since health problems last summer made it difficult for him to walk,
retired priest Father Neil Miller has been celebrating Sunday Mass at
Rochester’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish with the aid of a cane
and sometimes a walker.
Eneida C. Roman knits clothing for the poor and has begun
transcribing sacramental records for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in
Rochester — using a computer designed for those who are blind.
David Russell, who lives at a Catholic Charities residence for
people with developmental disabilities, sings in the choir and belongs
to the men’s club at Irondequoit’s St. James Parish. His fellow
Catholic Charities resident, Daneile Schreib, said she distributes “a
lot of bulletins” at the parish.
Blind since she was a baby, Judy Weidenborner serves as a lector at
Rochester’s Ss. Peter and Paul Parish, reading Scripture from Braille
Father Raymond H. Fleming, who lost most of his hearing in
childhood, shepherds a community of Catholics with various types of
hearing impairments as pastor of Rochester’s Emmanuel Church of the
Ann Kurz, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker, writes prayers
of the faithful for Masses at Rochester’s St. John the Evangelist
Parish and has participated in various parish activities.
All of these Catholics belong to a church led by a pope who has
become increasingly disabled in recent years.
In November 1978, the same year Pope John Paul II was elected, the
“Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with
Disabilities” was released. The document discussed ways in which the
church should minister to and with people who have disabilities. The
letter called people with disabilities “equal partners” in the faith
and noted that much of Jesus’ ministry was focused on people like them.
The document called on church members to remove barriers, both physical
and emotional, that impede people with disabilities from fully
participating in church life.
“It is not enough to merely affirm the rights of people with
disabilities,” the bishops wrote 25 years ago. “We must actively work
to make them real in the fabric of modern society. Recognizing that
individuals have a claim to our respect because they are persons,
because they share in the one redemption of Christ, and because they
contribute to our society by their activity within it, the church must
become an advocate for and with them.”
People with disabilities — and those who work with them —
acknowledge that the Diocese of Rochester has made great strides in
implementing both the letter and the spirit of the 1978 pastoral
letter. Yet they noted much remains to be done, particularly in the
area of making people with disabilities full participants in all church
The diocese has long served people with various disabilities. In
1951, for example, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened the School of the
Holy Childhood, which served Rochester-area children with mental
retardation. The school, which is no longer officially affiliated with
the diocese, now serves both children and adults with various
developmental disabilities. Meanwhile, ministry specifically for deaf
Catholics has existed in the diocese since the late 1920s, when the
now-defunct St. Francis DeSales Chapel for deaf Catholics began
operating in downtown Rochester.
However, diocesan experts on disabilities noted that until the
1970s, ministry to people with disabilities was directed mostly
at them rather than with them. In 1979, a task force
commissioned by Bishop Matthew H. Clark found that the needs of
diocesan people with disabilities needed to be better met. In response
to that need, Catholic Charities Residential Program was established in
1980. Today, the agency, now called Catholic Charities Community
Services, provides a vast array of services to people with
developmental disabilities, AIDS and traumatic brain injuries.
Paul Pickering, executive director of Catholic Charities Community
Services, said the agency currently serves about 400 clients —
Catholic and non-Catholic — in Monroe, Wayne, Ontario, Yates and
Livingston counties. The agency’s mandate is diocesanwide, he said, but
tries to plug service gaps rather than duplicate services already
provided by agencies in other diocesan counties.
One of the most notable changes he’s seen in his field over the
years is the deinstitutionalization of thousands of people with
developmental disabilities. Today, most people with disabilities live
in their own apartments, houses or group homes, he noted.
“I think our goal is to give them as little support as they need and
allow them as much freedom and independence as possible,” he said.
One Catholic Charities group residence, along with separate
neighboring apartments, is located on Tryon Park in Rochester. That’s
where St. James parishioners David Russell and Daneile Schreib live
with eight other residents, according to Cheryl Shepard, residential
manager. Other residents worship at St. James and St. Bridget’s
parishes in Rochester. St. Bridget’s also draws parishioners from
another Catholic Charities residence, Cloverdale.
“God gave me a great gift of singing,” Russell said before
demonstrating his tenor talents on the hymn “Surely the Presence of the
Lord Is in this Place.” Russell noted that he’s starred in
musical-theater productions, and is currently rehearsing for a role in
Shepard said many Catholics may not be aware that developmentally
disabled people like Russell routinely give back to the community. For
example, she said, her home’s residents once donated money to buy food
and furniture for a family who lost their home in a fire.
“They’re very compassionate when it comes to different things like
that, and I’m proud of that,” she said.
People with disabilities and their advocates agree that parish and
diocesan facilities have been made more accessible to them in recent
years. Most newer church and diocesan buildings were designed to
facilitate entrance by people in wheelchairs. Several parishes now have
audio-loop systems for people with hearing impairments, and some even
offer sign-interpreted Masses. In an informal survey conducted by the
Catholic Courier, several parishes indicated that they plan to
use some of the funds they receive from the Partners in Faith capital
campaign to make their facilities more accessible through
Meanwhile, the diocese’s Department of Evangelization and
Catechesis, through parishes and Catholic Charities residences,
provides catechetical materials to Catholics who have developmental
disabilities. And the diocese encourages parishes to work with
parishioners who have disabilities to discover what their needs are,
according to Sister Karen Dietz, SSJ, diocesan coordinator of
Yet several observers noted that more needs to be done to improve
attitudes toward people with disabilities.
“Instead of looking at a person with a disability and thinking, ‘He
can’t serve on a committee or bring up the offertory or lector because
of his speech or mobility or visual impairment,’ church members need to
offer the opportunity to the person with the disability,” Kurz said.
“If the person with the disability expresses an interest in
participating in the offered activity, then church members and the
person … should work together to determine how the person can best be
Weidenborner added that people with disabilities have gifts to offer
their fellow Catholics, especially the gift of learning to accept
others as they are.
“I really think that it’s a gift that I can’t see,” she said. “Sure,
(blindness) has its frustrations, (but) not having sight takes away
part of the criteria of judging people.”
Anne Sawyko, development director at Catholic Charities Community
Services, noted that “persons with physical disabilities have the same
obligation to spread the good news, to reach out and do good works.”
That’s something with which Roman would agree.
“There’s a lot of people that need help,” she said. “If I stay away
from helping them, I die.”