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 | By Emily Hockemeyer

Everyone is welcome here. Everyone belongs

SPRED welcomes Catholics with disabilities to grow in faith and community

The atmosphere at St. Dominic Parish in Saginaw was charged with joy, with a palpable sense of happiness and respect. SPRED students’ faces beamed with pride as they held onto their homemade candles crafted from paper towel holders and gold tinfoil and joyfully sang, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!"

It was the 50th anniversary of the Special Religious Education Program (SPRED), and participants and their families joined Bishop Robert Gruss for a celebratory Mass on May 23.

When Sister Elaine Raymond introduced the SPRED program to the Diocese of Saginaw in 1972, she knew the Diocese would benefit from it; however, she didn't predict its life-changing impact on the students and catechists. Her vision and foresight were evident as she saw the inclusive potential the program would have on the Catholic community. The last 50 years certainly have been a remarkable testament to God's love and light, which continues to shine through the program.

“Everyone needs a community.”

Established in 1966 as an agency of the Archdiocese of Chicago, SPRED's "goal is to make it possible for each parish to welcome persons with developmental disabilities where they would become prepared to participate in the liturgical life of their parish," according to their website. (  The hyperlink is just for online :)

Sister Elaine confidently adds that the goal of Saginaw's program is rooted in creating a space "where all are welcome to grow not only in faith, but life, too."

"Everyone needs a community," she said, adding her greatest hope is that SPRED will "fill the void" in her students' lives by creating authentic experiences within our Catholic community.

SPRED offers catechism classes that are like those provided by our local parishes. Classes are provided every other week at St. Dominic and tailored to meet students' needs. Each class has a 1:1 student-catechist ratio, and age groups are separated similarly to K-12 schools. However, SPRED is available from ages 6 and older. There is no age limit.

The creative thoughtfulness poured into the faith-based lessons, holiday dances, evening events, and masses is extraordinary; each is tangible and designed to emerge all five senses. For example, an activity might involve appreciating nature by smelling flowers, pouring water or describing the purpose of a bird's nest or fruit tree to acknowledge God's love and all that he provides for us. By doing so, our Catholic faith is enriched because of the connections formed between our understanding of God's creation and the liturgy.

Movement of the Holy Spirit

However, the magic in the classroom isn't in the lesson; it's how the students naturally let God's light shine through them. While each lesson is meticulously planned well before class begins, Sister Elaine remains open to the movement of the Holy Spirit working through the students.

“When the class takes the lesson in a totally different direction, that's the Spirit. The students' ideas are always better and stronger. Never hush them, for they know best," Sister Elaine said.

According to Marsha Caylor, a parishioner at St. John XXIII Parish in Hemlock who currently leads the program, SPRED is more than faith formation classes.

"It celebrates First Communions and shares in the happiness of receiving SPRED mail. It imparts the invaluable lesson of giving during the Christmas season and fosters essential life skills. It allows for pure forgiveness, appreciates simplicity, and gifts students the space to be their best selves," she said.

Kathy Hutchinson, a SPRED parent for 30 years, described the experience as “transformative” and said Sister Elaine encouraged her son, Patrick, to make his First Communion.

"At first, he was not receptive to it. However, Sister Elaine provided him opportunities to become more comfortable with the idea, and the day of [his First Communion], things changed,” she said. “When Patrick went up for Communion for the first time with his sponsor John Sheets, he took Communion with Bishop [Joseph] Cistone as if he'd done it a million times and has continued to do so ever since."

Kathy describes the SPRED experience as "transformative" and shared that "the Holy Spirit just really moves in that group."

The Holy Spirit is felt in both the calm and the excitement, in both the structured activities and spontaneous moments, in the quiet of prayer and the agape feast and in the tears and laughter shared amongst the SPRED community.

Continuing the tradition

Sister Elaine was at the helm of the program for more than four decades. While she's still very involved, the torch has passed to Marsha. Marsha's been a part of the program for 42 years; in fact, her three children grew up with SPRED and are still devoted volunteers.

Marsha's daughter, Sarah Trantham, is proud that her children have been born into the SPRED family, continuing the tradition.

"The love our students have shown my children is nothing short of beautiful, so much so that my daughter dreams of becoming a special education teacher," she remarked.

Celebrating the program's 50 years is a huge milestone for the local Catholic community. However, catechists like Sarah worry about the future of the program.

"Many people don't realize that very few catechism or religious education programs in the area are geared towards individuals with developmental disabilities,” she said. “It can be challenging to find a place where they feel welcome. Everyone deserves a place to feel comfortable learning and sharing about their faith."

The SPRED program has greatly benefited from the contributions of the Knights of Columbus, and their efforts are highly valued. However, SPRED needs volunteer catechists, too. Interested students are placed on a waiting list, as the program maintains its 1:1 student-catechist ratio.

Therefore, during its 50th anniversary year, the Diocese of Saginaw SPRED program wishes for the gift of 50 inclusive volunteers. SPRED's expansion beyond Saginaw would benefit many.

"We are called to serve one another to teach God's love," said Ann Watters, Marsha's co-leader. "Everyone deserves to know and experience God's love for them."

Ann ends the teaching portion of the class with a message to each student; one by one, takes their hands, and quietly shares, "Jesus says to you today: ‘I love you and I am always with you.’”

As soon as she approaches the students, their hands are already extended, eagerly awaiting the message. After she finishes, they kindly pass her hands on to the next person in line without missing a beat.

"God calls us to be more like the students," Sister Elaine said. "We can learn from their love and grow acceptance for all of God's children."

Do you feel called to volunteer with SPRED?

“We will welcome you with love and light.”

Contact Marsha Caylor at 989-385-1118