PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Anne Marie Kanable knows “the looks.”
She described how her son, Dane, who has Down syndrome, seems to pick the quieter moments to announce “whatever is on his mind,” drawing some attention, even at Mass.
“It could be ‘I’m hungry,’ or ‘Let’s go home now,’” Kanable said. “And oftentimes people will look at us.”
Kanable and her family belong to Holy Trinity Parish in Whitestone, Queens. Dane was baptized there 13 years ago. But still, his mother said, “you get looks.”
That is not the case at the parish’s special needs Mass, which on Sunday, Oct. 17, marked its 10th year on church schedules. The tradition had been on hold since March 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“I can’t say enough good things about it,” Kanable said of the Mass. “And it has grown. We went from just a couple of families to now where it’s a pretty big deal.”
Nancy Rullo, Holy Trinity’s director of religious education, said that, before the pandemic, the church hosted as many as 120 people at the Mass.
“We’d have a full church,” she said.
Kanable said all people are welcome, no matter their disabilities — such as Down syndrome, autism, hearing impairments, or quadriplegia, to name a few.
“I love the age range of people,” she said. “We also have older parents with adult children with disabilities. Every once in a while, the residents of a group home will come.”
The Mass will continue at 12:30 p.m. on the third Sunday of each month.
Lisa Kruger of Glendale said she and her husband, John, are the parents of three sons diagnosed with autism: 16-year-old twins Nicholas and Christopher, and Alexander, who is 9.
She said the monthly Mass at Holy Trinity “is a place where individuals with special needs and their families feel acknowledged, welcomed, and celebrated.”
“It is a place of pure joy, love, and peace,” she said.
Nicholas Kruger said he enjoys “listening to the priest, and I like to pray.”
“I literally missed not going since March of last year, because it was 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.
His brother, Christopher, agreed.
“I really wanted to go, but we stayed home during quarantine,” he lamented.
Christopher said he missed “saying prayers and singing religion songs that make me so happy!”
Nicholas added that he enjoyed reconnecting with the pastor, Father Joseph Gibino, when the Mass resumed this month.
“It was fun when Father Joe came to me,” he said. “He was saying, ‘Whoa, Nicholas, you’re getting way too tall, buddy!’ That really supported me and my whole family.”
Alexander Kruger said he likes that the Mass welcomes everyone to the church.
“It was fun yesterday because I got to see everyone that I haven’t seen in a while,” he said. “And I also got to receive Communion. I like when Father Joe does the homily. I like listening to his thoughts.”
Elsewhere in Queens, St. Gregory the Great Parish, Bellerose, started a similar Mass on Oct. 3 that will continue on the first Sunday of each month.
Cathy Crimmins, a retired pediatric intensive care nurse, helped develop the new Mass at St. Gregory with her friend, Sue O’Keeffe. Both belong to the parish social justice committee, formed by their new pastor, Father John O’Connor.
“From that came this idea to start a special needs Mass in our parish,” Crimmins said. “But earlier, we saw this one child in our church — and his mom and dad are so good the way they’re bringing him up — but he does make utterances and then people look at them. You feel so badly for them, but you want them to feel welcome.”
Crimmins added, “To my way of thinking, everyone should be treated with tremendous dignity, from conception to natural death.”
Another parish with accommodations for people with disabilities is St. Bernard in Mill Basin, Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in downtown Brooklyn has a special Mass for the hearing-impaired every Sunday at 11 a.m. with an American Sign Language interpreter.
Father Gibino, who also serves as vicar for Evangelization and Catechesis in the Diocese of Brooklyn, said Holy Trinity Parish’s Mass began in 2010 under the leadership of parishioners Debby and Randy Robertson. They have a daughter with autism, Mary, who is now 20 years old.
Father Gibino also recalled baptizing Dane Kanable.
“We have a number of families with children with special needs who are now young adults,” he said. “It has been wonderful watching them grow through the years.”
Father Gibino said many people in the special needs community were “at a loss” when the pandemic disrupted their daily routines. He said socialization is vital to everyone, especially people with special needs.
“So when we put routine and socialization together, the special needs community really was impacted” by those missing factors,” he said. “Now, as we’re coming out of COVID, being able to continue the special needs ministry is really wonderful.”
Father Gibino acknowledged there are challenges in making accommodations for the families but these four parishes offer examples that it can be done.
Once these families begin attending Mass regularly, he pointed out, the parishes can interact with them to learn how to serve their spiritual and religious education needs.