A volunteer, top right, looks on as a family with an autistic child left, attends Mass July 8 at Holy Trinity Church in Arouca, Trinidad. CNS photo/Laura Ann Phillips

Trinidad church aims for inclusion of sensory-challenged, disabled parishioners

  • July 13, 2018
AROUCA, Trinidad – More than four years ago, Saira Joseph-La Foucade stopped attending Mass.

She used to be quite regular, with her husband, daughter and son, until, one Sunday, a parishioner asked, "Please take him outside."

"Him" was her son, Matheaus, a toddler at the time, who had been diagnosed as moderate to severe on the autism spectrum.

The family had already cut down on outings, "because I would take him out," said La Foucade, "and people would be not nice."

She said she thought church was the one place at which they would be welcome or, at least, politely tolerated.

"Not being able to go to the mall or movies was nothing, but the missing Mass was too much for me," said La Foucade. "Because, I always felt he, as a baptized Roman Catholic, had a place in church just like everybody else!"

So, in 2014, she visited then-Archbishop Joseph Harris of Port-of-Spain. He had been parish priest back in her home parish of the Holy Trinity in Arouca for 15 years.

"When he became archbishop, I felt God calling me to go and talk with him. Even if nothing would happen, I knew he would, at least, have given me an ear."

He gave her more than that: permission to find a sympathetic priest to celebrate sensory-friendly Sunday Masses, and his private chapel in which to conduct the liturgies.

"It took a long while to get a priest to say yes!" she laughed. "But, Father Dexter, when I asked him, he said yes immediately."

Spiritan Father Dexter Brereton is a lecturer at the Seminary of St. John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs in Trinidad. He is also currently parish priest of Holy Trinity, Arouca, a semi-rural parish 12 miles east of the capital.

When he was assigned there in September 2015, the sensory-friendly liturgies moved, too.

And La Foucade formed the Bethesda Catholic Community, which celebrated its third anniversary July 8. The name "Bethesda" means "house of mercy" or "house of grace" and is the place Christ where healed a paralyzed man beside the Pool of Siloam.

Bethesda promotes the inclusion of special-needs people into church life, while providing moral support and advice to their families. The community prepared eight young people to receive first Communion at a June 2017 ceremony and is in the process of assembling a second group, as well as a confirmation class.

The multi-sensory nature of the traditional Mass can mean sensory overload to someone with neurological challenges. And, for the uninitiated, sensory-friendly liturgies can be a test of mindfulness.

For example, the congregation sits for the entire Mass. At Communion, the celebrant or extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist go to the pews, and those wishing to receive Communion so indicate.

"For an autistic child, to stand signals it's time to leave," said Tamitra Williams, mother of 6-year-old Salim, who has cerebral palsy and global development delay. "It can be difficult to get an autistic child to sit back down."

People are asked not to wear perfume or brightly colored clothing, since this can trigger negative reactions those hypersensitive to scent or color. There is normally one musical instrument, and singing is at a minimum. No microphones or sound systems are used out of consideration for those who find loud noises intolerable. The homily is brief; the entire liturgy normally lasts no more than 45 minutes. And, should someone be inclined to wander about humming during the entire Mass, well, that's normal.

"There is a void in church where the persons with disabilities cannot cope with the Mass and, usually, those persons who cannot cope (here) cannot cope with other social things," said La Foucade.

A high-functioning autistic associate opened her eyes to the impact of sensory processing disorder.

"He told me: 'When I walk into a church and closed environments, I can smell every single person in there. Like if it's a hundred perfumes! I get a hundred scents and it greets me like a wall by the door!'" La Foucade said, adding, "He is able to express how he feels."

That moved her to pay attention to her son and others unable to express how they were being affected by the stimuli in their environments.

"I realized, with my son ... and other persons with disabilities, when they walk into a room, they always pause by the door," she mused. "And, I realize it's because it impacts them before they go in."

The solution? She takes Matheaus to Mass early, "so people can walk in to him, rather than him walking in to everybody at one time."

Over the years, the number and variety of people attending the liturgy has grown.

"Disability has no bias. Initially, we thought it would have been children; we have adults with disabilities and a range of disabilities that come."

Consequently, Bethesda trains volunteers to assist those who need support, including occupying distracted children and, even adults, leaving care-givers free to focus on the liturgy. A sign language interpreter is also present and will sit beside a deaf person or in common view should there be more than one person needing the service.

Anything for inclusivity. And visibility.

Now sensory-friendly Masses are held monthly at two locations in east and south Trinidad.

"I am so tired of hearing the word 'awareness'!" said La Foucade. "People keep saying we have to raise awareness, but how can we raise awareness unless the persons with disabilities are there for you to understand their needs?"

For, as retired Archbishop Harris noted in his July 8 homily, "The most unlikely person can teach us something. May the Lord give eyes to see that the most unlikely people can give us messages."

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