Special needs catechism lets students blossom as they learn about Jesus

Catherine Nagrant, 32, a parishioner of Christ Our Light Parish in Troy, smiles for the camera during a Palm Sunday event following Christ Our Light's special needs religious education program April 9. Christ Our Light's program draws students from all over the area, who gather to learn about Jesus, prepare for the sacraments and enjoy fellowship and friendship with one another. (Photos by Janet Sugameli Biondo | Special to Detroit Catholic)

At Christ Our Light Parish in Troy, religious education program encourages students of all abilities to sing, pray and be themselves

TROY — Each Saturday, Catherine Nagrant attends a special needs program at Christ Our Light Parish in Troy, where she receives catechesis and instruction tailored to her learning abilities.

For Nagrant, though, it's about more than just religious education and sacramental preparation. It's where she makes friends and can express herself and her love of God.

“They’ve welcomed our whole family and take an interest in how we are doing,” Nagrant, 32, told Detroit Catholic. “I love to pray and get an opportunity every time to make intentions and special requests for prayers.”

Nagrant is one of 24 special-needs participants at Christ Our Light ranging in age from 8 to 76. Some students are members of the parish, while others come from a variety of other local churches.

Justin Stephenson receives an Easter basket from the Easter Bunny after the prayer service program April 9 at Christ Our Light Parish in Troy.
Justin Stephenson receives an Easter basket from the Easter Bunny after the prayer service program April 9 at Christ Our Light Parish in Troy.

Considered a religious education program, Christ Our Light's special-needs catechism class is an opportunity for students to prepare for their sacraments, no matter their ability level.

The program runs during the school year, giving students a chance to understand the Gospel readings, pray with one another, examine their consciences, celebrate one another’s accomplishments, sing and enjoy fellowship. The program even includes healthy living and eating tips provided by a doctor, and a physical therapist who introduces students to exercises to help improve posture.

“I like to sing in the choir and play drums,” Nagrant told Detroit Catholic. “It’s fun in the classroom learning about Jesus and the Church, learning about the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings.”

The program, which was started by now-retired Sr. Mary Choiniere, CSJ, about 15 years ago, is open to Catholics and non-Catholics, said Pam LaGrassa, a former elementary school teacher who has been running the program for the past eight years.

Each week, the students begin with a prayer service in the church, including the Gospel readings, singing, prayer intentions, and an examination of conscience.

Cameron Brunt, playing Jesus, comes into Jerusalem carrying a stuffed donkey as catechist George Downey wheels him down the aisle, lined by special needs program participants and caregivers in a re-enactment of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading.
Cameron Brunt, playing Jesus, comes into Jerusalem carrying a stuffed donkey as catechist George Downey wheels him down the aisle, lined by special needs program participants and caregivers in a re-enactment of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading.

On April 9, students donned costumes as they prepared for Palm Sunday, re-enacting parts of the Gospel with their caregivers and parents. As parents and friends lined the pews waving palm branches, catechist George Downey wheeled Cameron Brunt — playing Christ — down the aisle holding his stuffed donkey as the crowd said, "Welcome Jesus."

During another part of the re-enactment, student Gregory Petzer recalled the Last Supper as he held the chalice at the altar repeating the words of Jesus.

Cathy Downey, whose son Daniel, 23, played the resurrected Jesus, has been bringing her son to the program since he was 6. The family’s parish is in Sterling Heights, but they come each week to be part of the program.

“We were trying to find a place where he could be included in religious training like our other children,” Downey said. “He was able to get the sacraments here, which is very difficult in other places.”

Downey credited organizers of the program for their efforts to get to know the participants, who have an opportunity to enjoy themselves, whether singing, dancing, playing the keyboard or reading prayers.

Gregory Petzer acts out the Last Supper by repeating Jesus’ prayer during a re-enactment of the Palm Sunday Gospel readings during Christ Our Light's special needs catechism program April 9.
Gregory Petzer acts out the Last Supper by repeating Jesus’ prayer during a re-enactment of the Palm Sunday Gospel readings during Christ Our Light's special needs catechism program April 9.

“It gives them a chance to shine,” Downey added.

LaGrassa said music is an important part of the meetings. Some participants are in the band, while others sing or act.

“My goal is that you find a place or a job for everybody,” LaGrassa said. “Some don’t want to act, while others want to sing, or they do the readings. Everybody has a place.”

Students look forward to praying for the people in their lives, LaGrassa added.

“We have a prayer service so we can pray together and increase our spiritualty,” LaGrassa said. Afterward, the students break into small groups led by catechists and parents with their caregivers. Participation varies according to ability and age.

Students also are encouraged to get involved in charity. They often bring in socks and t-shirts for the homeless or participate in events to support Right to Life Michigan or local pregnancy centers.

Physical therapist Amy Mittelstaedt teaches students stretches and exercises as student Emanual Hermiz tries them out April 9. Mittelstaedt and Dr. Eva Molenda regularly give talks and lessons to the group about healthy living, good posture and eating habits.
Physical therapist Amy Mittelstaedt teaches students stretches and exercises as student Emanual Hermiz tries them out April 9. Mittelstaedt and Dr. Eva Molenda regularly give talks and lessons to the group about healthy living, good posture and eating habits.

“People give a lot to us, and we want to give a lot to others so Christian service is an important part of our program,” LaGrassa said.

Dr. Eva Molenda, whose daughter Julia participates in the program, offered to help by presenting ways for students to take care of their bodies and teaching about illnesses that can be caused by unhealthy habits.

“God wants us to take care of our bodies because our bodies are temples of Christ,” said Dr. Molenda, who began offering regular talks last fall. At the beginning of the year, she asked physical therapist Amy Mittelstaedt to join her in offering tips and exercises for students to try.

“I just think that all of us don’t take enough time for exercise,” explained Middelstaedt, who considers students' different ability levels as she teaches a variety of simple movements to keep them active and develop proper posture.

“This is a group that often gets left behind,” Mittelstaedt said. “Exercise is important to do at whatever degree you can do it.”

Catechist Nancy Arens said she feels students have been able to express themselves more freely because of Christ Our Light's program.

“Because of that, they have grown more spiritual and closer to their parish and to God,” Arens said.



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