By Dolores Bittel
The Holy Innocents Society of St. Matthias parish in Ridgewood, celebrated its 60th anniversary in February of this year. In 1958, the society was the brainchild of Father Joseph Ostermann in order for the mentally challenged, emotionally disabled and other special-needs children, to be able to receive First Holy Communion and Confirmation. The pastor at the time, Msgr. Paul Faustman, agreed.
The fathers of two parish families were the driving force: Joe Reilly, whose son was born with spina bifida, and Ed Byrnes, whose son was born with Down Syndrome. My mother, Eleanor, met these fathers and became a member immediately as my brother, Russell, was brain damaged at birth. At the same time, Trinitarian Sisters were aiding in social ministry and involved in preparing these children to receive the sacraments.
The parish had a vacant storefront on Catalpa Avenue and this was to be known as St. Joseph’s Workshop. Parents were so happy their children would be able to receive Holy Communion. Every Saturday morning from September through May, these children were given religion studies, socialization skills and learned to make Christmas decorations. At the time, there were no local programs for special-needs children. High school students also volunteered to help one-on-one. The program coordinator, Bob Lohrey, has volunteered for over 45 years. Even as his family and responsibilities grew, he was there.
The local families with developmentally and emotionally disabled children embraced this program. Many others came from surrounding parishes, from Brooklyn and other Queens parishes. This weekly Saturday event at the “workshop” was a respite for parents. For my mother, this was an integral part of her life and her volunteer job. For my brother, it was a chance to play Bingo and make ornaments.
As these teenagers grew older, there were socials for Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day. They delighted in dancing and having sodas and potato chips. Once a month on a Saturday, volunteers drove the older participants to the local bowling alley to bowl. Trophies were handed out at a luncheon every June.
In the 1960s there were as many as 20 to 40 youngsters (toddlers were in a separate group) coming to this program. Special Masses at the beginning of the year’s program in September and ending in May, were attended by parents and the special adults. Several participated as altar servers, and brought up the gifts which was very “special” to them.
My brother passed away in January at the age of 70. Every Saturday, for at least 60 years, until illness made it impossible, he went to the “workshop.” Now it has come to an end. Physical ailments have increased in these older adults with special needs. Monthly parent meetings had segued to include sibling-caregivers.
A farewell luncheon held at the Woodhaven House this spring, and there were many tears for the “Holy Innocents.”
Bittel is lifelong parishioner and trustee of St. Matthias parish.