‘O Come Let Us Adore Him’ – Participating in the Christmas pageant is a special event for members of the Holy Innocents Society in St. Justin Parish, Toms River. Photo courtesy of Pat Wertz
‘O Come Let Us Adore Him’ – Participating in the Christmas pageant is a special event for members of the Holy Innocents Society in St. Justin Parish, Toms River. Photo courtesy of Pat Wertz

Working with the Holy Innocents Society was something neither Angelo Romanello nor Pat Hertz had ever intentionally set out to do.

But it was through different life experiences from years ago that led both of them to begin their ministries to children with special needs.

Between them, Hertz and Romanello have more than 60 years of loving service to the Holy Innocents Society. Romanello has been president of the diocesan Holy Innocents Society and director of the Holy Cross Learning Center for 36 years, and Hertz has been involved with the learning center in St. Justin Parish, Toms River, for 26 years.

While both acknowledged that theirs is a fulfilling ministry in which they receive much more than what they give, Hertz said, that what truly heartens her the most is the children’s “unconditional love.”

“These children don’t expect anything from you,” said Hertz, who is also the coordinator of religious education in St. Justin. “They are so willing to give of themselves. They just have unconditional love.”

Romanello fondly recalled how his introduction to the Holy Innocents Society came in 1974 by way of his membership in the Trenton Council, Knights of Columbus.

The council had been asked to help “reactivate” the learning center in Mercer County. It was previously held in St. Hedwig Parish, Trenton, but then it closed. The second center was opened in Holy Cross Parish, Trenton, which is now part of Divine Mercy Parish.

There were 13 in Holy Cross Center of Learning’s first group of students, Romanello recalled. Over the years, the center has had as many as 50 at one time. There are currently 32 students enrolled in the center, he said.

Romanello chuckled about his training for working with special needs children – it was on-the-job.

“I had no previous training in this area and had never focused on making this my life’s work,” he said. “But when I saw the students, I realized that everyone had a right to know of God’s love, including them. They needed to know that Jesus was with them too, and I wanted to help them.”

Romanello’s passion for the Holy Innocents Society was enough that his family wanted to become involved as well. His wife, Rose Anna is the current coordinator of the Holy Cross Learning Center, and his two daughters, volunteered at the center as high school students. Both of the daughters are now professional educators with the disabled. One teaches at the Marie H. Katzenback School for the Deaf and the other is an adaptive physical education teacher with Mercer County Special Services.

Folks have rich and plentiful stories to share about their experiences with the Holy Innocents Society.

One story in St. Justin Parish was told through Debbie Galasso, the mother of student 19-year-old Rebecca Galasso, who was born with SLO. Though Rebecca is described as being a “failure to thrive” and has a disability that has left her severely mentally retarded and affected her growth – she’s only three feet tall and weighs 70 pounds – her mother said “she’s a ball of fire. She’s amazing” Rebecca has been in the Holy Innocents Society for 15 years and, in spite of her disability, “she understands,” Galasso said.

“She know Church and she knows when she’s going to Church,” Galasso said, adding that Rebecca likes to sit in the front pew for Mass, and at the end of Mass, Rebecca insists on joining in the closing procession.

“I wanted her to make her sacraments” and the Holy Innocents Society enabled her to do so, Galasso said. “She’s getting a good religious education. It’s a wonderful program and it’s wonderful to see the children and how they believe.”

Romanello recalled two cherished memories about the Holy Innocents Society.

One challenge he faced was trying to find a way to communicate with the young girl of about 16 who had a social disability and wouldn’t speak.

“She would sit there and grunt,” he said. “She was very anti-social and if anyone got too close to her, she would bite them.”

It took a while, but Romanello eventually hit on a solution. He tried picture drawing.

The girl, Romanello said, “had a tremendous talent for putting down on paper what was on her mind,” he said, and for more than a year, the two would have their conversations through drawing pictures, and the young girl would sketch out her weekly activities on paper.

After a year, Romanello said, the girl was “saying the Our Father” and began interacting more with her fellow classmates. After two years, he said, the girl was shaking hands and saying “hello.”

“Her parents were amazed,” he said. “They found it difficult to believe that she was speaking because she had no verbalization. They never imagined she would be able to.”

A second story Romanello remembered was when he was helping “Brian,” a young man with multiple disabilities, prepare to receive his first Holy Communion.

One of the requirements was getting him to understand the difference between the host and ordinary bread and “that was difficult,” he said.

“I spent one whole year trying to make the differentiation with very little success. I was feeling very discouraged.”

After a year, Romanello got his point across with the help of a cookie.

“I gave Brian the cookie and he said ‘cook,’ which was cookie for him,” Romanello said. “Then I gave him a host and he said ‘Jesus.’” “That was a great break through,” Romanello said. “I finally got Brian to make his first Holy Communion.”

The way Romanello sees it, the work of the Holy Innocents Society is not about what the catechists and aides do, but it’s about what God does.

“I find myself standing in awe of God’s work,” he said. “God manifests himself through these children and that is the greatest proof of his love for us that I could ever imagine.”