For special needs kids, volunteer makes sure the sacraments are special, too

Mary Chaudhuri, 78, a volunteer catechist who teaches special needs children to help prepare them for the sacraments at St. Lawrence Parish in Utica, smiles broadly during a visit to the parish Oct. 23. Chaudhuri says the inspiration for her work lies in the faces of the students she teaches. "It warms my heart" to see students making their sacrament, she says. Chaudhuri was one of five local Catholics recently honored for their work in special needs ministry. (Matthew Rich | Special to Detroit Catholic) 

St. Lawrence catechist among five honored for their dedication and ministry to those with special needs

NORTHVILLE — Mary Chaudhuri vividly remembers a day in high school when her neighbor, a boy with Down syndrome, was mistreated by his peers and even his own sister. Chaudhuri advocated for the boy but knew he would still be called names and taunted when she couldn’t be there.  

After high school, Chaudhuri took a class at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Detroit to learn how to teach children with special needs. Soon, she was a volunteer, preparing elementary-aged children with special needs for their sacraments. When she and her husband became members of St. Lawrence Parish in Utica after they were married, Chaudhuri signed up to be a catechist. 

Aside from taking a break for a few years when her children were small, she’s been working with special needs children ever since.

“Teaching is important to me because when I was young, there were no classes for special needs kids, and so most didn’t receive their sacraments,” Chaudhuri, 78, said. “Parents didn’t know where to go or whom to go to.”  

Each year, Chaudhuri takes classes online or within the Archdiocese of Detroit to maintain her certification as a catechist for individuals with Down syndrome, autism, attention deficit disorder, speech and hearing impairment, and other special needs. The program at St. Lawrence is among a handful of catechism programs for special needs students in the archdiocese — a need Chaudhuri says is more present than people realize.

“Some parishes don’t think they have enough people with special needs to start a program. But I disagree,” Chaudhuri said. “One student constitutes a program. No child should be denied religious education. It might take a long time, but no one should be denied the chance to learn their faith, to know that Jesus loves them, and that they’re special. They have a right to participate and make their sacraments the same way we all do.”

Mary Chaudhuri stands before the doors leading into St. Lawrence Church in Utica. Parish special needs programs positively affect the whole family, Chaudhuri says, helping the parish and family grow together in Christ. (Matthew Rich | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Chaudhuri recruits and trains catechists to share the Gospel with the children in her classes, which prepare children to receive the sacraments of first Communion, first reconciliation and confirmation.

“It always warms my heart to see them making their sacraments,” Chaudhuri said. “The Holy Spirit is working in these kids.”

On Oct. 14, Chaudhuri and four others in the Archdiocese of Detroit were honored during a Special Needs Ministry Mass at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Northville. The Mass was hosted by Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan (CCSEM), which honored the abilities of those with special needs and those who support them in the archdiocese.  

Joyce Hyttinen, director of Christian Service and Health Care Ministry for CCSEM, said the annual Mass is intended to create awareness of those with special needs and to encourage parishes to be welcoming and accommodating.  

“We’re all one human family and we’re called to love and care for one another,” Hyttinen said. “We want people with special needs to feel part of their parishes and know they are important to the life of a parish.”

Special needs programs at parishes affect the whole family, Chaudhuri says. The classes help both parents and students feel like they’re part of the community. The number of families participating in the St. Lawrence program has increased in recent years, as parents are often surprised to learn that there is a place for their children to prepare them for the sacraments.

For all her training, Chaudhuri's experience over the decades has been her best guide of all.

“When you’re working with a student for a while, you can tell when they understand,” Chaudhuri said. “A lot of people don’t think they can do it, but they can. All you need is a little patience, but they’ll get there.”

Chaudhuri plans to continue to serve as the chairperson of special needs catechesis at St. Lawrence as long as she can.

Left to right, Harriette Peterson, Mary Kay Reith, Mary Chaudhuri, Sue Kattula and Fr. Denis Theroux accept awards for their work in special needs ministry during a Mass with Auxiliary Bishop Donald Hanchon, right, at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Northville on Oct. 14. (Courtesy of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan)

In addition to Chaudhuri, four others were honored at the Oct. 14 Mass:

Harriette Peterson, a nurse at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit, visits the sick, homebound and those with special needs. Peterson offers health and wellness presentations for community and also invites the homebound to attend anointing Masses and the annual All Souls Mass and fellowship gathering, which she organizes. Peterson’s dedication and joyful spirit are hallmarks of her work at the parish.

Sue Kattula is the manager of the Breaking Barriers program at the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights. Breaking Barriers provides services and advocacy to individuals with special needs through events at St. Joseph Chaldean Catholic Church in Troy, including social events and an American Sign Language (ASL) Mass offered monthly. An ASL Bible study meets twice a month, allowing hearing-impaired men and women to understand their faith in a deeper way.

Mary Kay Reith works with those with disabilities as a volunteer at St. Ephrem Parish in Sterling Heights, focusing on the strengths and needs of every student. Parents at nearby parishes bring their special needs children to St. Ephrem in part because of Reith’s commitment. The penance service she prepared at St. Ephrem is a model for teaching students about self-reflection, forgiveness and penance, and was part of a video produced by CCSEM highlighting best practices.

Under Fr. Denis Theroux’s leadership, Our Lady of Victory Parish in Northville has seen an increase in Mass attendance by those with disabilities. An emphasis is placed on the inclusion of special needs individuals across all parish activities and planning, including the parish council, parish strategy and accommodations for those with particular needs. Fr. Theroux regularly celebrates a special needs Mass at the parish and is committed to providing resources to those who need them.