Remy, a golden retriever from The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing therapy dogs for special needs, was present for the sensory-friendly Mass and Advent wreath-making in St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro, Nov. 20.
Remy, a golden retriever from The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing therapy dogs for special needs, was present for the sensory-friendly Mass and Advent wreath-making in St. Gabriel Parish, Marlboro, Nov. 20.

In a dimly lit church, without music and microphones, more than 70 attendees gathered for a shortened-format Mass as part of a sensory-friendly experience for special needs children and their families.

Rosemarie Hoye, chairperson of the Northern Monmouth Chapter of the diocesan Holy Innocents Society, said, “The kids and the families who come get so much out of it. It is an opportunity where they can be themselves, they don’t have to conform to what others think as ‘normal’ because it’s all like-minded families here.”

Hoye was referring to the first sensory Mass for families and children with special needs celebrated Nov. 20 in St. Gabriel Church, Marlboro.

In his homily, Father Eugene Roberts, St. Gabriel pastor and principal celebrant of the Mass, shared his deep admiration and respect for all of the families, especially those facing tremendous challenges. He reminded the families about the gift of faith, the gift of caring for one another, and the gift of God’s perfect love for every person.

With an eight-year-old son on the autism spectrum and a 10-year-old daughter with typical neurological development, Kristi Hutchings appreciates that her parish now offers a sensory friendly Mass.

“I think it’s really important because it’s a safe space, a judgment-free zone, so I can go and I can attend Mass with my children. My son may not be able to sit still; it’s a shortened format and there’s no music or sounds which could affect his sensory needs. Even for my daughter … the Masses are conducted at a children’s level so she can understand the homilies,” said Hutchings, a member of St. Gabriel Parish.

Following Mass, Father Roberts thought back to when he was assigned in Our Lady of Fatima Parish, Piscataway, where similar Masses were celebrated.

“This was like coming home, celebrating this Mass with these special children and their parents,” he said. “It was a joy. It’s as if the hand of God comes down upon the children for that brief moment all together and they’re calm. Even if they speak out loud, they’re still calm …and that’s the blessing.”

According to Hoye, The Holy Innocents Society was established to serve the community members in parishes and beyond who face special challenges daily and to be a resource for special-needs children, adults and families.

There are five Holy Innocents Society chapters within the four-county Diocese in Northern Monmouth, Southern Monmouth, Northern Ocean, Southern Ocean, Burlington and Mercer, which had become inactive in recent years but is currently being redeveloped. Catechists prepare their students for the reception of the Sacraments and, through continuing religious education, prepare them to take an active role in the Church community.

Along with St. Gabriel Parish, other parishes in the Northern Monmouth County region, including St. Benedict, Holmdel, and St. Mary, Middletown, offer self-contained classes for special-needs students preparing for First Holy Communion.

“We also advise other parishes how to accommodate these special students,” said Hoye, noting that the Masses for the Northern Monmouth Holy Innocents Society are planned by John Brandon of St. Mary Parish, Middletown, and members of the Vincent T. Lombardi Council, Knights of Columbus, also in Middletown. The Masses are celebrated on a monthly basis and follow a rotating schedule of parishes.

Brandon, a longtime Holy Innocents Society advocate, shared that his journey with the Holy Innocents Society began when his special needs son was four years old.

“He is 36 now,” he said, noting gratefully that his son has been able to participate in his Catholic faith for more than 30 years. Otherwise, he said, “It is difficult for people like myself who have a child with special needs to go as a family to Mass.”

The Mass and refreshments that followed were organized by the Bishop John C. Reiss Council, Knights of Columbus. After Mass, the children participated in Advent crafts and enjoyed a special guest visit from Remy, a four-year-old golden retriever from The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing therapy dogs for special needs individuals.

The December sensory friendly Mass will be celebrated at 3 p.m., Dec. 18, in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, 61 Georgia Rd., Freehold, and is open to everyone. A Christmas party will follow.

For more information on the Holy Innocents Society, visit dioceseoftrenton.org/holy-innocents-society. Persons interested in helping with the Mercer County Chapter of the Holy Innocents Society should email; [email protected] or call 609-403-7139.