Holy Family Church is meeting the sacramental needs of special needs children and their families

By John Henry


North Texas Catholic

 Msgr. Johnson gives a blessing to a special needs child during Holy Communion.

Love and faith, Blessed Mother Teresa once said, walk side by side, perfecting one another stride by stride.

In harmony, these two essentials of the spiritual life also provide a foundation of strength and confidence. And peace for the entire family, especially families who face special challenges.

It’s easy to find all those among the families of the Holy Family Church community who file into the chapel for the special needs Mass at 7 p.m. on the second Saturday of every month.

“This Mass has been such a blessing to us,” said Robyn Flores, who along with her husband, John, is raising Ethan, a special needs child with autism.

“We cannot express the feeling of peace that we experience on these wonderfully special Saturdays. The Holy Spirit is present at every Mass and fills us with a feeling that cannot be duplicated.”

Before the new Mass, a typical weekend almost always included splitting up the family to go to church. One or the other spouse would take their daughter, Mia, to church while the other would stay home with Ethan. Or the couple would have someone come to the house to stay with their son, so the three other family members could attend Mass together. “Either way, he was not able to celebrate with us. Now, once a month, we are all able to go together. We have peace while we are there, knowing we are not disrupting the Mass for anyone else.”

Rose and Darius Unkefer were encountering the same challenges. Rose Unkefer, who like John Flores, is a graduate of Nolan Catholic High School, had attended a parish meeting to discuss ministries within the church community during the early days of Father Jeff Poirot’s pastorate.

Rose Unkefer said she was talking to Fr. Jeff privately about the meeting and asked him to consider one more: a special needs Mass, which Unkefer and Robyn Flores had been talking about for some time.

Done, he said. He immediately embraced the idea and said he would do it even if it was only for the two families.
“Fr. Jeff’s initial reaction to our request to have a Special Needs Mass was absolutely-without-hesitation yes,” Unkefer said.

The families made sure to get the word out. There were more families with a similar need.

And steadily, attendance at the Mass has increased.

On most Saturdays, the chapel is filled with families with special needs children and their extended families and friends. It has become an event of solidarity.

“The Mass strengthens me to try to live God’s word in everyday life,” Rose Unkefer said. “Having a special needs child, for us means sharing in the brightest moments, with every step forward, as well as moments of worry and despair.

“The Mass is a time to look up to God, ever thankful for the beauty He has created in each and every child.”

The special needs Mass at Holy Family has led to making provisions to meet the sacramental needs of these children and teens. A program to catechize special needs children is under way at Holy Family.

One of the children who attends the Mass was also the first child Fr. Jeff baptised at the church, who knew families who had struggled to have their special needs children receive the sacraments, Rose Unkefer said.

There are many stories of children with special needs demonstrating an understanding of the essential truths of the Church. Many children started by making the Sign of the Cross and then by praying. Special needs children at Holy Family will soon be able to deepen their knowledge of the faith.

“We can even see it in Ethan,” Robyn Flores said. “He is becoming more comfortable and slowly learning the progression of the service.”

Ethan, who is 7, has started the sacramental program, taught by Nancy Wainscott, a certified behavior analyst.
The program is based on the work conducted by the Rizzo family of Marlton, New Jersey. David and Mercedes Rizzo wanted a sacramental program for their daughter, who is autistic.

“It was very important to us that she made her sacraments,” Mercedes Rizzo told the National Catholic Register. “At the same time, it was important that she was really ready.”

The only available materials for children preparing for First Communion were very verbal and included complex concepts that are difficult to understand for many children with autism, according to the Register article,

“Catechesis for the Autistic.” Many children who are autistic, like their daughter Danielle, are not verbal. Learning for children with autism and similar disabilities is not language-based, but rather visual.

The Rizzo parents developed their own methods for teaching, the article went on, and like Danielle, the special-needs children of Holy Family are doing much of their catechesis through flash cards.

The Rizzos’ son, Brendan, turned his parents’ work into an Eagle Scout project and created a collection of autism teaching resources for the family’s parish in New Jersey, the Register article said. His final work, “Adaptive First Eucharist Kit,” was published by Loyola Press.

Robyn Flores said they are grateful to have “a specialized way to teach [Ethan] about our faith.”

The program at Holy Family was shaped through the work of Mary Ellen McBee, the director of formation at Holy Family.

In addition to the “Adaptive First Eucharist Kit,” McBee has employed the input of people trained in applied behavior analysis therapy and specialists, such as Wainscott, who work with children with autism.

“These children have been chosen by God in order to share in the Passion of Christ,” Unkefer said. “We are called to help and serve others. The purest love is given without hesitation and without expecting anything in return.”One day, the Floreses and Unkefers and others hope to have a Catholic school for special-needs children in the diocese.

But that’s for another day.

“Jesus’ love was pure love,” Rose Unkefer said, “Children with special needs are pure love also. They give pure love and they give us the opportunity to demonstrate pure love.”

Love and faith, Blessed Mother Teresa once said, walk side by side, perfecting one another stride by stride.