The Area Religious Special Education program, now in its 40th year, may be one of the Green Bay Diocese’s best-kept secrets. Outside of the 48 students, 30 volunteers and handful of area priests who join the group to celebrate Mass, few people know about the program’s success in sharing the Catholic faith with developmentally disabled children and adults and preparing them for the sacraments and lay ministries.
Susan Peeters, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in De Pere, has been the program’s coordinator for 15 years. She said the experience of working with the group has transformed her life.
“When you celebrate with these people, you are changed and you take the changes within you and carry them out into the world,” she said. “These wonderful people have the opportunity to change us all for the better.”
Program volunteers agree with Peeters.
“I’ve learned more than I give … if I’m not standing here half in tears just watching these people,” said Ellen Mommaerts, who has been a volunteer catechist for five years. “They are so genuine about their faith and have a willingness to share that’s pretty awesome. It really becomes a community. Everybody cares about everybody else.”
According to Peeters, the program’s success is based on several factors: the peer support of its participants, the involvement of family and caring volunteers and the acceptance and respect of each person’s individual needs.
The group gathers 12 times a year in the social hall at Nativity of Our Lord Church at 9 a.m. and begins with a large-group discussion.
“We begin by talking about the Gospel readings they will be doing in church on Sunday,” said Peeters. “After that, there is a presentation of the lesson of the day followed by classroom time. We gather again to end our morning with Mass.”
Individuals are divided into groups such as adult faith sharing or sacramental preparation.
“In those groups, we sort of fine-tune and make (the Gospel reading) more relatable,” said Peeters, noting that participants and volunteers come from parishes around the Green Bay area.
“We have a large group of wonderfully dedicated volunteers which include catechists, aides, hall monitors, sacristans, mentors and a board of directors,” she said. “Imparting the faith to people who carry a developmental disability requires patience, flexibility and creativity. The team carries this off with great love and good cheer.”
The Area Religious Special Education program began after its founder, Diane Gossen, decided that her son, David, would not be excluded from church.
“My son had to receive his first Communion in the basement of our house when the priest said he would not let (David) receive it in church,” Gossen told The Compass.
The priest’s words still echo in her mind.
“Father said (David) was an angel and he didn’t need Communion and I said, ‘He eats at my table. He’s going to eat at God’s table.’ That was my motivation. That’s when I decided that our priests needed to be educated. I didn’t want that for anybody else, so I went and got my certification” to teach religious education, she said.
At the time, Gossen, who now lives in Crivitz and attends St. Mary Parish in Lakewood, was a member of St. Mary Parish in De Pere. She started holding classes for David and another student in 1968. About 30 years ago, the program moved to Nativity of Our Lord Church, which provides the space at no charge.
Since its inception, the program has received financial support from the Knights of Columbus. Today, in addition to the Knights, funding comes from family tuition, parish tuition assistance and private donations.
Gossen retired as program director 20 years ago, but returns occasionally for special events. Her son David, who lives in a group home in Green Bay, continues to attend the religious education classes.
On Feb. 9, the group met for the final time this year. They were joined for Mass by Bishop Robert Morneau, who also conferred the sacrament of confirmation on four students: Dana Hurst, Laura Johnson, Andrea Wauters and Brittany Westphal. One student, Zachary Nohr, received his first Communion.
During the morning session, Peeters spoke about the celebration of Mass. “Because you are in there at Mass, there is something nobody else could give to God: You,” she told the group. “You are sharing what you are. Be present at the Mass.”
They also spoke about Lent and the sacrament of reconciliation. During classroom time, some of the students colored pictures depicting a Scripture passage.
Bishop Morneau, who has been a Mass celebrant for the group for 34 years, said he enjoys being with them each year.
“It’s just a great experience,” he said. “The nobility of these kids, what they have to struggle with in their lives. They’re very special. So it’s really an honor to be part of this.”
He commended the dedication of Peeters, her volunteer staff and family members.
Like choir soloist Breene, students learn to participate in the Mass in different ministries, including as cantors, servers, lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and greeters. They in turn take these ministry skills to their home parishes, said Peeters.
“Students who struggle with behaviors can receive assistance from the team and from their peers in the group,” she said. “I have seen people who struggled to make it through a Mass learn, grow and turn into active participants in the Mass.”
Peeters said new catechist team members and Mass ministry mentors are always needed.
“Everyone is welcome to join us. You don’t need any special experience as long as you go through the VIRTUS (diocesan safe environment training) program,” she said. “The function of a volunteer is to simply join a group and make friends. They build small faith communities within this community and it strengthens them so they can carry that out into their home parishes.”
Peeters tells others that God made everyone, including the developmentally disabled, just as they are “in order to use us as he planned.”
“I believe these people are as they are because God has a particular plan for their lives — as he does for all of us,” she said. “They are loving, giving servants. They shine with the love and light of Christ.”
To learn more about the Area Religious Special Education program or to volunteer, contact Susan Peeters, [email protected], or call (920) 265-5210.