Many siblings of those with special needs assist religious education classes such as Rachel Altschuler, who served as a teen helper in the special needs program of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorestown, with her brother David. Courtesy photo

Many siblings of those with special needs assist religious education classes such as Rachel Altschuler, who served as a teen helper in the special needs program of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorestown, with her brother David. Courtesy photo

By Christina Leslie | Correspondent

The Diocese of Trenton and its parishes are answering the call to catechize special needs children. Here is a sampling of the programs in operation.

For Children / Young Adults

Holy Innocents Society – The federation, with locations at parishes in all four counties of the Diocese, is dedicated to the spiritual welfare of special children of all ages. Those with special needs, whether intellectual, cognitive or developmental, who cannot function in a regular parish program, are offered religious instruction tailored to their individual learning ability.

The learning centers are staffed by volunteer catechists and aides, and funding is provided by the Knights of Columbus, the Holy Innocents Society and others.

For an up-to-date listing of centers, see

CONTACT: Patricia Hertz, president, Federation of Holy Innocents Society, 732-255-6216,

St. Gregory the Great, Hamilton Square – The G.R.A.C.E. (God Recognizes All His Children Equally) ministry was formed to create an environment of dignity, rights, potential and inclusion for its special needs adults, says its mission statement. Occupational therapist Ceil Gallucci explained the results of a parish survey of the underserved members shone a light on the challenges of families with special needs members.

The Saturday 6:30 p.m. Mass was designated a low sensory Mass; the incense-free, low lighting Mass, which plays softer music and allows special needs persons to move more freely, has become a popular option for parishioners, Gallucci said. “We have an altar server with autism. Our deacon trained him, along with his mother, and now the two of them serve together at the Mass.”

Gallucci teaches special needs children individually on Monday nights, and clergy administer their Sacraments on the same day as the larger class, but in the chapel “so it’s smaller, quieter and less stimulating. We work it out so it is best for the child.”

CONTACT: Ceil Gallucci, 609-586-0635 or


St. Joseph, Toms River – The parish’s faith formation program for grades one to eight is offered for two weeks each summer, noted Nancy Uffer of the St. Joseph Religious Education Academy. Of the approximately 1,000 students who attend the program each year, about 60 of them have varying special needs.

This population is taught under the supervision of special education teacher Londa Appigani and with the assistance of aides drawn from the high school, which shares the Toms River campus: Donovan Catholic. Children with many types of special needs have been served by the dedicated teachers during one of two five full-day sessions.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Uffer said. “People start registering in January for the summer, and Londa calls each family to see their needs.”

CONTACT: Marge Halloran, Director of Faith Formation, 732-349-0018 ext. 2225, or


Sacred Heart, Riverton – The parish is in its 19th year of the program known as WE CAN: We Enrich Children of All Needs, said Pat Hutchinson, parish coordinator of religious education. Students ages five and older meet on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month under the leadership of long-time catechist Heidi Devine. Eight catechists teach a group of about a dozen students, which allows for nearly personalized instruction.

“They meet in a large-group setting, then they break off with their catechists for their learning session,” Hutchinson said. “They return to the large-group setting if there is a craft and also for a final prayer.”

She added that the children have the opportunity to perform a service project by making lunches for the men at St. John’s Hospice, Philadelphia, and celebrate their Sacraments along with the others in the religious education program.

“They really form a sense of community,” Hutchinson said.

CONTACT: Pat Hutchinson, 856-829-1848, or


Our Lady of Good Counsel, Moorestown – Dr. Linda Dix, director of religious education, explained the special needs program was created in response to her parish mission trip to Jamaica to work with this underserved population. “Now, 15 years later, we have a special needs program for more than 25 students, many of whom are autistic and non-verbal,” she said. “Father Damian [McElroy, pastor] has promoted the program, and it is open to other parishes as well.”

Nearly a dozen catechists work each Saturday morning with the children, with Stuart and Darlene Altschuler at the helm. (“Their oldest son is autistic, and Darlene is a state special needs advocate for children,” Dix said.) Families attend 9 a.m. Mass in the chapel and breakfast together before splitting up into three rotations according to age-appropriate activities.

“Many teens and siblings of our special needs children assist the catechists with faith-sharing activities with joy and enthusiasm,” Dix said. The program has garnered awards from the state of New Jersey, Loyola Press and other sources.

CONTACT: Dr. Linda Dix, 856-235-7136 or


St. Gabriel, Marlboro – “Too many times, parents came to us and asked if we had any special needs classes,” recalled Marie Masiello, youth director in St. Gabriel Parish. Already teaching religious instruction on the junior high level, she knew she needed to enlist others as well. “I told my youth group, ‘I need your help,’ and asked them to commit to a regular [volunteer] schedule,” she said. “My best friend is a nurse. I got her to help as well.”

The “Gabriel’s Angels” program meets each Wednesday and has instructed about a dozen children so far; four will be receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation in October; two will be returning and two more will join the class for the first time. Under the helm of religious education director Mary Mykityshyn, the diverse population is taught and supervised by teachers, high school-aged aides, even one of Masiello’s grandchildren.

“They have the love of Jesus in their hearts, and have the support of their families,” the catechist said. “It’s important to them, and energizing for me.”

CONTACT: Mary Mykityshyn, 732-946-4487 ext. 227 or


Visitation, Brick – About 14 years ago, Dee DeTuro, an assistant in the parish’s religious education office, urged then-pastor Father Will Dunlap to create a special needs class for her daughter with Down’s Syndrome. “I had worked in the [special education] field, and I recruited my friends to help,” DeTuro recalled.

Each October the parish begins the class anew, offering weekly classes with the goal of leading the children through education for their Sacraments. Two teachers and three long-time aides assist the children in group and individualized instruction depending upon their skill level.

“It’s getting more popular, the resources are out there,” DeTuro said, recalling how two children used a computer with icons for their non-verbal Confession with Father Dunlap. Classes with able-bodied children periodically invite their challenged counterparts for certain activities; “parents want then to be inclusive with other kids,” DeTuro remarked.

CONTACT: Nancy Grodberg, 732-477-5217 or


St. Joan of Arc, Marlton – The parish’s Caritas ministry offers “Special Disciples,” one-on-one classes with certified catechists for those with special needs, which are held every other Sunday during the 9 a.m. Mass from October until April.

TLC, or “Totally Lauren’s Crew,” is a monthly special needs social group for young adults ages 18-39. Named for a deceased special needs member of the parish, it was created for those no longer in a school setting and offers social events to gather and forge friendships in a fun, faith-filled environment. Each outing begins with a low-sensory Mass, then the group embarks on an afternoon of bowling, line dancing, crafts, games and other activities.

CONTACT: Sue Screnci and Stacy Bouillon,

For Parents / Families

CARE (Children Accepted, Recognized and Educated) – Meets at St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square, monthly to share support and resources parents have discovered in caring for their special needs child.

CONTACT: Jen Adamo,


Heart to Heart – Meets at St. Joan of Arc Parish, Marlton, rectory dining room on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. bi-monthly beginning Oct. 3 (see website for schedule). For parents who desire an opportunity to share, support, encourage, and pray for one another as they face the challenges and rewards of parenting children with special needs.

CONTACT: Anitra and Maria,