SPRED makes faith accessible to people with developmental disabilities

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Mary Ward, SPRED activity catechist, assists Haroon Hameed with his activity during the preparation period of a SPRED session on Oct. 10, 2022. (Nicholas Szewc/Nicholas Szewc Photography)

When Joe Quane first went to a meeting about becoming a Special Religious Development catechist, he didn’t think it was really for him.

It seemed like too much of a time commitment, said Quane, who was between jobs at the time after being laid off from Freddie Mac during the 2008 recession. Besides, he was looking for a new job in the finance industry, and he didn’t want to be tied to a new SPRED program at his parents’ parish in the Beverly neighborhood.

He also hadn’t noticed anyone in the parish who had a developmental disability, so he wasn’t sure there was even a need.

Then Quane went to watch a SPRED community meeting at the SPRED center in Bridgeport, where meeting rooms have one-way glass to allow new catechists to watch and learn.

“I observed a child session, with the 6-10 age group,” said Quane, who has been SPRED’s executive director since 2019. “I thought I knew what I was going to see, and I saw something completely different.

“Everybody was calm, and these people authentically liked each other. They were happy to be there. To be a SPRED catechist, all you have to do is be a friend to somebody. All we require is your willingness to be a friend and accompany them on their journey.”

Quane was one of two people from his parish who observed a SPRED meeting, and both of them decided to continue with developing the ministry — which also included recruiting enough other catechists to for the six “friends,” or SPRED members with developmental disabilities, who were waiting to start.

Quane is still a SPRED catechist in an adult group, and he has been working with the same friend for 13 years. Now that SPRED communities are meeting again after a COVID-19-induced hiatus, the organization is seeking more catechists and hoping to start more communities.

“We ask catechists to make a commitment for two years, but most stay much longer than that because of the authentic relationships,” he said.

Sonia Reynoso learned about SPRED when she was seeking religious education for her older son, Simon, who has autism. None of the parishes she contacted offered anything for him, she said; it was her younger son’s pediatrician who first suggested SPRED to her.

“I emailed and I got a response right away,” Reynoso said, adding that they were invited to attend the SPRED Mass that Sunday.

“Here I was at a crossroads,” Reynoso said. “I was questioning God, I was questioning my faith. I was almost at a point of feeling defeated, and my prayers were answered for my son. SPRED for me is God-sent. It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle ministry. Seeing our children, our relatives in a community of faith that is fully welcoming to them and embracing them, that is love. Pure love.”

Simon was 8 when he started SPRED; he’s now 13. He received his first Communion from SPRED founder Father James McCarthy, and Reynoso cherished the photo of that event.

SPRED offers Simon and other friends a place where they can be themselves, Reynoso said, and appreciated for everything they are.

“A lot of times our special friends are unable to be who they are, whether it be their mannerisms that they might have or their special characteristics that they try to hide,” she said. “Many times in our society, they are not as included as they could be, even in places of worship.”

Quane wants Catholics to understand that SPRED is not a religious education class for people with developmental disabilities; it is a small faith community that includes people with developmental disabilities and catechists. Groups are capped at six friends and eight catechists, which includes one catechist for each friend and well as a leader and one to help where needed. Different age groups are in different communities, and many adult friends stay in their communities for 20 years or more.

“Our goal really is about helping our friends to feel like they belong in their local parish community,” Quane said. “We want our friends to be part of that liturgy and part of that larger community.”

In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis said people with disabilities “tend to be the hidden exiles among us,” Quane said. “We want them to not only get into the door but feel that they are welcomed and they belong.”

Each meeting is based on evoking a certain human experience and linking it to a liturgical or spiritual experience. For example, a session on the sense of belonging could include sharing times both friends and catechists felt like they belonged with their family or friends, and how that made them feel happy and safe and loved, and then talking about how everyone belongs in God’s family.

Meetings start with time to settle in, and end with “agape,” or sharing refreshments and fellowship.

Details are important; meeting rooms are comfortable, with pleasant, non-fluorescent lighting. Food and drinks are served on real dishes during agape, Quane said.

“It’s like when you have people over that you care about,” he said.

Each community holds 12 sessions each year for its friends; catechists meet an additional 12 times a year to prepare and share their own faith. Many communities also get together to do something fun and social, like getting ice cream or going to a movie in the park, over the summer when they are not having regular meetings.

“We are all about lifelong formation,” Quane said. “Even though our friends get confirmed, they continue on. And it’s not only about lifelong formation for our friends, but it’s about lifelong formation for our catechist communities.”

SPRED was started in Chicago in 1960 by McCarthy, who was looking for a way for people with developmental disabilities to receive their sacraments and become full members of their parish communities. McCarthy, who died Aug. 5, 2022, at age 95, was sympathetic to parishioners who wanted their children to be able to participate at least in part because he had a developmentally disabled brother.

He researched different ideas and methods, and decided the student-teacher classroom model would not work. He ended up basing SPRED on the French “Method Vive,” or living method — that is, relating religious ideas to universal, everyday human experiences.

Right now, SPRED communities exist in about half the parishes in the archdiocese, with a few parishes having more than one community. Often, parishes that are near each other will cooperate, with different parishes hosting different age groups.

The SPRED center, 2956 S. Lowe Ave., is the SPRED site for all the parishes in the Bridgeport neighborhood and hosts communities of all ages, as well as monthly SPRED Masses that are meant to offer an example of the ways parishes can include their members with developmental disabilities.

Larry Adams, a catechist for 20 years, is the leader of the adult SPRED community at St. Bede-St. Denis Parish. Three of the six friends who belong to the community have been there the whole time.

“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “A lot of people do come back year after year. It’s been a way of engaging and developing my own faith and understanding that our friends have a lot to teach us.”

He started, he said, because after learning about SPRED, he thought, “I want to be a part of this. I want to be a part of God’s love. I want to be a part of gifting God’s love to others.”

What he and other catechists have found is that they receive as much or more than they give.

“The most important thing I’ve gotten out of SPRED is realizing what’s important in life, and it’s relationships and caring and realizing that we’re in this together, even though people have different abilities and talents and interests,” Adams said. “I just retired a year ago, and while I was working, it was easy to forget what was important. To slow down and realize that love is important and trust is important, our friends are pretty good at reminding us of that.”

Reynoso said the SPRED community includes not just Simon, but the whole family, including her husband, Jose, and younger son, Tomas.

“It’s God’s love,” she said. “That’s what I feel when I’m there. Learning the beauty of what we have among our own circle of friends. We can have a chaotic day, a chaotic week, maybe things aren’t going to plan, but we have that peace.”

For more information or to become a friend/volunteer, visit


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