Back in the 1970s there was a movement in the Church to include children with cognitive disabilities in religious education so that they could live full sacramental lives. 

Bishop Wuerl
Grace Harding presents the religious education curriculum to then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl and Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1996. Courtesy of Grace Harding

Grace Harding, who had a background in special education and religious education, came to the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1979 as the coordinator for special religious education to run such a program. She later became director of the Department of Persons With Disabilities. 

Special religious education was still developing and growing in those earliest years, and when the Kennedy family set out to find the best, Harding and her staff had some ideas. By the time Harding retired in 2005, the program that she envisioned had become the foundation for countless special needs religious education programs across the United States and in many countries around the world. 

Harding, who now lives in Sun City Center, Fla., headed the development of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program to Improve Catholic Religious Education for Children and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities. 

“I get calls from all over the world requesting the program,” said Lorie Uhlmann, who is now the director of the Department of Persons With Disabilities. “It’s in England, Russia, Australia, and many other countries. It’s in every parish in our diocese and has been shared with the principals of all of our schools, all catechetical administrators and our pastors. We are now in the process of moving it from the large binder composition to e-files. That should happen in the fall so that it’s easier to transport and to share with folks who request it.” 

Kennedy support

Harding became involved in the project in late 1994 when she wrote a curriculum to present to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who, with the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation, was looking for a program that could be used all over the country for special-needs individuals. She was then invited to present it to the foundation board of directors. 

“It was an idea of a comprehensive curriculum that would include something for the catechists and something for the parents,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “I had only a few minutes for my brief presentation, and I said that I would like to name it after Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, who had just passed away. I didn’t know that Mrs. Kennedy wanted something done in her memory, and that what I wrote was exactly what Eunice had in mind.” 

The foundation awarded the diocese $50,000 to develop the curriculum and the national office of the Knights of Columbus sent then-Bishop Donald Wuerl $45,000 to get it printed. Shriver later donated another $50,000 to promote the program. 

“I never did things by myself,” Harding said. “I convened with groups of my colleagues and I had a wonderful group of people, and the first thing we did was meet as a group and brainstorm about this. What were we going to do? How were we going to put this together?” 

Joint effort

Sister Jeannette Bussin of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden offered input and retreat facilities for them to meet. Nancy Gannon, Sue Dipiero and Pam DeFrancesca worked on the guidelines for parents, and Bishop Wuerl (now Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.,) and Father Kris Stubna, the Pittsburgh diocese’s director of education, gave their full support. 

Harding also consulted Sister of Mercy Sally Ryan, of Long Island, who was involved in programs for handicapped children, and Franciscan Sister Coletta Dunn, who taught Harding when she was pursuing a master’s degree in special education at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. 

Sister Coletta did her doctorate in readiness for religion for persons with cognitive disabilities. 

“I believe that all people can be readied for religious experiences if the families are encouraged to do more than just baptism,” she told OSV. “They can all be helped if we have the patience and the skills to help them.” 

Sister Coletta designed a film curricular study for educators, parents, families and directors of religious education, and presented more than 40 workshops around the country. She and the late Sister of St. Francis Sheila Haskett are the co-founders of “Journey With Jesus,” a user-friendly program for the catechist and parents that begins with baptism and travels the sacraments to “the final journey with God.” 

In that program, she said, “The Gospel with three liturgical cycles of reading is simplified for people with cognitive disabilities.”

Levels of formation

Sister Coletta, now 82 and soon retiring after 48 years of teaching, has seen changes in spirituality on all levels. 

“We are having more and more of a sense of a new reality that religious nurture goes on for a lifetime,” she told OSV. “Just as the people in the pews generally need to be fed by the homilies and their own reading and study, our people with cognitive disabilities need not only religious education, but they also need to be encouraged to be part of the renewal. There is a thirst for spirituality, and in the last 10 years I have become more conscious of how much thirst there is among the ones who are often neglected. So many of them in their 20s and 30s are in workshops and they see their peers dying, and we have to prepare them also for the final journey.” 

Sister Coletta’s contribution to the Kennedy program was to correlate Scriptures with lesson plans based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

“Our goal was that instead of grade levels, to come up with levels of faith, foundations, relationships and discipleship and missions levels,” Harding said. “Within each level, there are another three levels.” 

The lesson plans begin with the foundations and baptism, to the fourth level on living in faith as good Christians, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the beatitudes, and making good decisions. There are 260 lesson plans and prayer services. 

Welcoming all

Harding and her staff conducted the first training in Pittsburgh, then took the program to workshops in about 60 of the 168 dioceses in the United States, and also to conventions. 

“We printed 3,000 copies and trained at least 5,000 people,” she said. 

Morningstar school
Students at Morning Star School in Orlando receive sacraments. Courtesy of Morning Star School

It was translated into Spanish, and one year Bishop Wuerl took it to Rome where it received a commendation from the Vatican. Copies have been sent to every Catholic bishop in the United States, including those of the Eastern rites. 

“We made it into a roadmap where it’s easy to pick and choose,” Harding said. “It’s like a steppingstone where you can use the lessons you want in conjunction with another curriculum, according to the children’s abilities.” 

Uhlmann credits Harding, her team and the Kennedy family for having the foresight to understand the need to prepare children and adults to fully participate in their Catholic faith. 

“It is a great source and tool for us in our awareness that we know, as the family of God, that all are welcome,” she said about the program. “No one is turned away. Whether it be worship or the celebration of our sacraments, or our individual journey in learning the faith, we are all welcome within the family of God and within our Catholic celebration.” 

The program is being revised to the new Roman Missal standards, and to include additional lessons and plans for individuals with autism. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.