Sister Susanne (at right) helps her sister Rita climb the 40 steps to get to Rita’s SPRED faith community meeting.

Sister Susanne (at right) helps her sister Rita climb the 40 steps to get to Rita’s SPRED faith community meeting.

(This article reprinted from the Summer 2013 edition of HOPE)

For the last 45 years, Sister Susanne Gallagher has been making a church home for people with developmental disabilities in the Archdiocese of Chicago through her work with SPRED — Special Religious Development.

SPRED offers services that help parishes integrate people with developmental or learning disabilities into worship. Around since 1960, SPRED’s unique educational process of creating faith communities and helping people find their church home has also branched out into other dioceses and countries now affiliated with the Chicago office. (Learn more about SPRED at spred.org.)

The work, though, is far more than a job; it’s even more than a ministry for Sister Susanne. It’s about family. It’s about creating home wherever you are. “We just wanted to focus on helping people to find a sense of belonging, to help them know God’s love that is here for all of us,” Sister Susanne said.

She has served in this ministry for 45 years with the team of Father James McCarthy and Sister Mary Therese Harrington, S.H.

“We have become family,” Sister Susanne said about this long-term ministry partnership. “We pray together. We have mass together every day. We go out to eat together every day, share our main meal. It’s a way we get caught up on what’s happening. … Father Jim and Mary Therese are my daily community, my daily family.”

Eleven years ago, a fourth person joined this daily family: Sister Susanne’s sister, Rita. A person with Down’s syndrome and fragile health, Rita came to live with Sister Susanne in 2002 just before their mother died. The team welcomed Rita into the daily pattern of their work and family experiences.

“Her family is the four of us doing things together,” Sister Susanne said.

Rita also has been integrated into Sister Susanne’s life as a Sister of Providence. Several postulants have volunteered at SPRED, which allowed them the opportunity to build lasting relationships with Rita. Other sisters in the local area, too, are friends with Sister Susanne and Rita. Additionally, the two sisteers’ own siblings — 14 in all — are a constant presence in their lives, including some sisters who help with Rita’s weekly care. They are surrounded by family in every sense.

Rita has dementia, which Sister Susanne said causes her world to get smaller and smaller. “What she wants to do is ‘being with’ us. The ‘being with’ is so important to someone who is frail. The ‘being with’ is what makes us whole,” she said. “Being with and loving each other as we are, to me, is the most important thing. Then we can be who we are meant to be.”

Creating this feeling of love, care and acceptance is also the primary work of SPRED. Sister Susanne describes the program of inviting people with developmental disabilities into the wider church community as finding a way with what the person has lived to connect them to the experience of faith.

“If they are capable of relationship, then they are capable of responding in faith to Jesus, who is a person,” she said. “That is how we are able to build a sense of home — because we can know and sense the presence of Jesus who loves us.”