EXETER — On Saturday, Sept. 30, the Diocesan Special Religious Education (SPRED) program organized its annual picnic at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Exeter.
The event was organized by Irma Rodriguez, director of the SPRED Program.
Msgr. Gerard Sabourin celebrated Mass before the picnic. The St. Kateri pastor is one of the early pioneers of the SPRED program in the Diocese of Providence.
During Mass, many of the current and former members of the SPRED program were present, along with their parents or caregivers. The altar servers were also members of the SPRED program. Mass was followed by the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and the recitation of the Divine Praises.
After the final procession and some words of thanks from Rodriguez, a first class relic of St. Kateri Tekakwitha was brought out, and those present venerated it as they passed by.
The participants then gathered in the parish hall, where barbecue and pastries were served to those in attendance.
“It is good for us to be back together, after almost four years of Covid,” said Msgr. Sabourin.
Helping those with different mental abilities has been a major part of Msgr. Sabourin’s ministry for most of his priesthood. Ordained a priest in 1960, he spent his first few years in priestly ministry taking part primarily in parish work.
In 1962, Monsignor was approached by a family in his parish whose child was mentally handicapped, and they asked him if he could administer First Communion to her. After he agreed, word of Msgr. Sabourin spread, and he was eventually told of a group of local Catholics suffering from mental handicaps whose parents or caretakers desired that they receive the sacraments.
After spending some time ministering to the needs of this segment of the Catholic population, Msgr. Sabourin approached then-Bishop Russell J. McVinney, asking him to establish a ministry for the mentally disabled. Bishop McVinney then appointed Monsignor Sabourin to devote himself full time to helping the sick and disabled.
In 1963, Monsignor Sabourin was assigned to work as a chaplain at the Rhode Island State Hospital for Mental Diseases, also known as the Adolph Meyer building, which served people with a variety of physical and mental handicaps and psychological disorders.
In 1972, he attended a conference on catechesis in Chicago, and at the conference was introduced to the SPRED Program, a religious education program meant to minister to both children, teens and young adults with learning disabilities. SPREAD, as it was then-known, had been established in the early 1960s by Father James McCarthy, a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Msgr. Sabourin was the first priest in the Diocese of Providence to employ the SPRED program. Throughout the 1970s, Monsignor worked to build up the program while also working as a chaplain at the Ladd School in Exeter.
In the early 1980s, Monsignor stopped working at the Ladd school, and took with him a small number of those housed at Ladd, going on to establish a group home for them. This group home would eventually evolve into the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Community as it exists today.
Many of those present attested to the strong emphasis on acceptance and solidarity among those who run the program.
“They touch your heart. They love God so much, and they always express their love at Mass. And they really love everyone,” said Dulce Jimmenez, age 15, a parishioner of St. Ann’s Parish in Providence, who has been involved in the SPRED program for the past two years.
Even those who have been involved in the program for many years repeated similar sentiments.
“I think the acceptance is wonderful,” said Peggy Daluz, who has been involved in SPRED for the past 25 years, and whose daughter, now aged 36, was also served by the program. Daluz cited a sense of acceptance among those who run the program and their ability to adapt various things in the life of the Church to the needs of those served by the program as its biggest strengths.
Daluz got involved in SPRED while attending St. Bernard’s Parish in North Kingstown. At the time, Msgr. Sabourin was working at that parish, and approached Daluz asking her to serve as a catechist for the program. She accepted, and eventually became the lead catechist for the children in the SPRED program, before choosing to become an adult catechist.
Rodriguez, the program’s director, said she is very proud of her SPRED students and their families.
“I am so happy and proud of the people [for the fact that] they came, with all of the rain and all of the difficulties,” said Rodriguez. “I think it was such a blessing to be able to participate in the Eucharist and share that with our friends. We really are so grateful to Monsignor, because he really dedicated all his life [to the program], and he keeps trying to bring us together as community.”