Special Religious Education program marks 50 years

Ministry serves developmentally disabled adults and children

ASHWAUBENON — “God made us as we are in order to use us as he planned.” This is how Susan Peeters describes the mission and ministry of Green Bay’s Area Religious Special Education program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary Oct. 27 at Nativity of Our Lord Church.

Peeters, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in De Pere, is coordinator of the religious education program, which seeks to share the Catholic faith with developmentally disabled children and adults and prepare them for the sacraments and lay ministries.

Ryan Schaut, a confirmation candidate from St. Agnes Parish in Green Bay, holds a processional cross during the opening procession of Mass at Nativity of Our Lord Church in Ashwaubenon Oct. 27. The Mass marked the 50th anniversary of Green Bay’s Area Religious Special Education program, which serves developmentally disabled adults and youth. Also pictured are Billie Jo Havinga, left, a confirmation catechist from Annunciation Parish, Knights of Columbus fourth degree color guard members, and Mass celebrants Msgr. Jim Dillenburg, left, and Fr. Bob Rhyner. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“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. “These are gifted people, they are spiritually gifted. Their kindness and warmth — if we could all be more like them, the world would be a better place.”

This year the program serves about 30 students, who meet each Saturday from September through February with a dozen volunteers. Several area priests are also on hand to celebrate Mass with the group. Participants are encouraged to become involved in the Mass by receiving training for ministry roles as altar servers, cantors, choir members, lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.

The program is funded by family tuition, parish tuition support and the Knights of Columbus.

Joining the group as celebrants at the 50th anniversary Mass were Msgr. Jim Dillenburg and Fr. Bob Rhyner. Another priest who gives his time to the group, Fr. Bob Kabat, pastor of St. Matthew Parish in Allouez, was also in attendance.

“It’s such a privilege to be the one to celebrate this Mass on the 50th anniversary of this fantastic program,” Msgr. Dillenburg said in his homily. “It’s a privilege also because you people are so sincere about what you are doing. I’ve always been impressed by everybody participating, those who serve, the ones who carry the cross in the procession, the song leaders, the Communion distributors. Everybody who is here just takes their role so seriously. You always see it as a privilege.”

Msgr. Dillenburg said the group’s motto, “God made us as we are to serve as God pleases,” reinforces God’s plan for each person. “God has a place in his heart for everybody, even those who feel a little bit different sometimes,” he said. “And you know what? We are all different.”

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 in 2013.

“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.

Gossen, who died in 2013, started holding classes for David and another student in 1968. About 35 years ago, the program moved to Nativity of Our Lord Church, which provides the space at no charge.

Gossen retired as program director 25 years ago, and Peeters succeeded her. Gossen’s son David, who lives in a group home in Green Bay, continues to attend the religious education classes.

Peeters said new catechist team members and Mass ministry mentors are always needed. “The function of a volunteer is to simply join a group and make friends,” she said. Volunteers are required to go through the VIRTUS (diocesan safe environment training) program. To learn more about the Area Religious Special Education program or to volunteer, contact Susan Peeters, [email protected], or visit gbspecialreligioused.org.

View additional photos from the anniversary Mass on our Flickr page.

The following video was created in 2013.