Sunday morning church under a Special Religious Development program is a bit different from other services.
Actors play out Scripture; acoustic walls keep sound in. Instead of pews, there are single seats.
The service is set up to help disabled parishioners, and Sunday, at the chapel at the former St. John Nepomucene Parish in Bridgeport, a blessing was included for one of the people who started it all.
Growing up with someone with disabilities gave Sister Therese Mary Harrington, 87, what she calls a “sixth sense.”
A native of Montana, Harrington’s father was injured as a mine worker. She said her first memory at 4 years old was holding up orange juice for her father. “From then on, you know, you knew if somebody couldn’t do stuff, you had to step up,” she said.
Harrington continued to step up to help those who needed it, and when a priest needed assistance in bringing disabled parishioners to Mass, Harrington jumped on that opportunity.
Decades ago, the learning material available to disabled parishioners was awful, she said.
Harrington, who is retiring, started her 60-year career developing religious education in France. There, she studied a method that would later be adopted by St. John in 1964, and the program was established as an agency of the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1966.
According to a statement from the archdiocese, Harrington is credited with changing the program to move away from clustering people with disabilities in one or two locations and instead establishing parish-based classrooms staffed by parish volunteers.
“She made the disabled visible,” the statement said.
In 2022, the program was serving nearly 700 people with special needs in 114 parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago, the statement said.
Parishes were initially skeptical of the approach, Harrington said, and she recalled butting heads at a National Convention on First Communion for the intellectually disabled in 1984 at DePaul.
“A lot of people just didn’t think that people with intellectual disabilities were qualified for First Communion. If they were intellectually slow, they wouldn’t learn enough,” she said.
Harrington said not knowing how to say prayers and recite confession was beside the point as long as parishioners could find a relationship with Jesus.
Part of the program includes painting, providing closer attention to students, and being aware that things like loud sounds and bright lights can be a distraction.
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“You’re always on the alert. You don’t have time to think about yourself. You know, because you’re always trying to figure out what’s going on. Prevent disaster and help them to be comfortable,” Harrington said.
There are still challenges today.
Sonia Reynoso said she thought it was going to be impossible for her autistic 8-year-old son to get the education he needed to take the sacrament. She had visited three churches before finding St. John.
“We were tired. We were fearful of what the future would have been,” said Reynoso. She said people in previous churches would look at her son for making sounds and “being himself.”
Joe Quane, the director of the religious education program, blessed Harrington and said he looks forward to expanding on the foundation she has spent her life building.
Quane said he is going to miss Harrington’s wit, knowledge and ability to listen, fly through books, and digest dense theology.
In turn, Harrington said, “I love the people. They’re very collaborative and very helpful. And I love their families,” she said. “They’ll do anything (for their children). So they make wonderful volunteers.”