Monthly Focus on Abilities Masses in Augusta encourage culture of inclusivity for parishioners with disabilities

Originally Appeared in : 9810-5/10/18

AUGUSTA-- Imagine walking into the very place designed to mirror the kingdom of heaven on earth and not feeling comfortable.


Marty Turcios, who has cerebral palsy, can remember feeling like this as a child in the 60s and 70s.


He said that he’s attended churches –not necessarily in the Catholic tradition – where people had the attitude that he wasn’t like them, a child of God.


At St. Mary on the Hill Church in Augusta where Turcios now worships, efforts are underway to ensure that no one with disabilities ever feels as he did.


Beginning with its May 15, 2016 Pentecost Sunday bulletin, then-pastor Father Jerry P. Ragan invited parishioners to consider getting more involved in various ministries. One of the roles he specifically hoped to fulfill was “parish advocate for people with disabilities.”


This person, the entry of “Father Jerry’s Corner” explained, would “incorporate a disability perspective into all areas of our faith community so as to help us all to assume our responsibility to welcome and include parishioners with disabilities.”


Parishioner Estelle Duncan, now retired but formerly the director of services for people with developmental disabilities at a local agency, answered Father Ragan’s call.


In the two years since, St. Mary’s Parish Partnership on Disability, which organizes a monthly Focus on Abilities Mass, has grown to include approximately 18 active members.


At each Focus on Abilities Mass, parishioners with disabilities are invited in serve in the same roles as those without – lector, cantor, usher, altar server and Eucharistic Minister – even if they require a little bit of help.


Additionally, the ministry accommodates those in the pews with unique needs by providing listening devices, seat cushions and large print missals to make their experience more comfortable, allowing them to better participate in the liturgy.


“But our ultimate goal is that we shouldn’t have to have the Focus on Abilities Mass,” Duncan says. “All of our Masses should be looking for ways to include people with all abilities. Throughout all of our Masses, we do have people with varying levels of ability that do contribute. But it just needs to be more of a culture.”


Aside from Turcios, who often ushers at the Masses, the ministry’s other members include Annie Bowman, a 19-year-old with autism who cantors and occasionally brings the Eucharistic gifts to the altar, and Andrew Douglas, a 10-year-old who uses cochlear implants but doesn’t let his hearing loss prevent him from lectoring. He says that he likes “being just like my dad” and one day hopes to lector alongside him.


Fully aware that she has autism, Bowman doesn’t also see any reason why she shouldn’t be able to participate as fully in the Mass as anyone else. She cited Pope Francis’ love of people with disabilities as part of the reason why she enjoys serving.


 “Those with disabilities should always be remembered,” Bowman said. “Those with disabilities should have the chance to participate and express themselves.”


Fellow cantor Carrie Murga, who serves as the autism facilitator at a local school, agreed.


 “(It’s important) to accept everybody for who they are and to focus on their abilities not their disabilities,” Murga said. Duncan, who heads the ministry, likewise noted the importance of getting to know those who have disabilities as people. “Everybody has unique gifts and unique things that they can bring to Mass and that everybody has a gift and we need to focus on what those gifts are and not what makes us different, but what makes us the same.”


Other goals of the Parish Partnership on Disability include obtaining an automatic door opener as well as signage indicating the location of the parish’s wheelchair entrance.


“They’re all very, very small things but it makes a difference in people’s comfort level here,” Duncan said. “But also that they’re recognizing that the Church is making an effort to do things that will make them more comfortable coming here.”


Jessica L. Marsala is Assistant to the Editor of the Southern Cross.


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