Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington



From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302


Special people contribute to parishes in special ways

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Aug. 2, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Almost 30 years ago, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a “Pastoral Statement on People with Disabilities.” In that statement, the bishops wrote: “The leaders and the general membership of the Church must educate themselves to appreciate fully the contribution people with disabilities can make to the Church’s spiritual life” (#13).

Today, in many parishes of the Diocese of Spokane, Catholics with disabilities or handicaps carry out important liturgical, educational, and other ministries: as lectors and altar servers, in Catholic schools and religious education programs, and on parish councils. Here is a random sampling of these dedicated and effective Catholics.

• Our Lady of the Lake Parish, Suncrest, also includes the areas of Tum Tum and Nine Mile Falls, outside Spokane. Parishioner Tina Holbrook (left), 51, uses a walker and leg braces and occasionally a wheel chair. She and her husband, Jeff, have been married for 25 years and have five adult offspring, from ages 23 to 35. Tina has been active in Our Lady of the Lake Parish since she moved to the area at age 21. Over the years, she has served in many ways, including as lector and Eucharistic minister. Her main energies, however, have gone into her parish’s youth ministry program.

“I’ve been involved with the youth for about the last 30 years,” Tina says matter-of-factly. “Early on, we started doing a dramatized Stations of the Cross, and in the early years we traveled all around doing that. It was a prayer experience. During Lent, the kids would do something like 16 performances. Eventually, we had to cut it off. Parishes all around the diocese would want us, and there wasn’t enough time. Over the years it just evolved. For about the last five years we didn’t do it. It seemed like it was taking too much time and energy for too many people. But we did it again this past Lent, and it was just awesome. The kids were so hyped about it.”

This August, Holbrook says, the parish will host a reunion for all the former teens who participated, over the years, in the dramatized Stations of the Cross program.

She says that her parish community has been nothing but understanding, supportive and accommodating when it comes to her special needs. “It’s about making a difference with these kids,” she says, “it’s not about me. When I meet the Lord, he’s going to say, ‘Tina, you did a good job.’ It’s awesome, it’s wonderful.”

• Matthew Phillips, 17, has Down Syndrome. For more than two years he has been a faithful altar server at St. Mary’s Presentation Parish, Deer Park.

“He’s one of the best altar servers I have ever had,” says the pastor, Father Albert Grasher. “He enjoys being an altar server, hardly ever needs any reminders or directions, is very respectful during Mass, and is prompt when scheduled.”

Matthew says, “I like to serve. I like to help Father wash his hands. I set the table, and I ring the bells. I’m never late.”

Cindy Phillips, Matthew’s mother, is very positive about the parish’s welcoming attitude toward Matthew, though she admits that at first, she was hesitant. When classes for new servers were first offered, “I took my daughter, but Father Al approached me and asked about Matt. He said, ‘I think he could do it.’ People give Matt a lot of positive feedback. We’ve always had nothing but positive comments,” she said.

• At Spokane’s All Saints School, St. Peter parishioner Jill Gotzian, 48, uses a motorized cart as she teaches fifth grade. She has taught that grade at All Saints for 19 years now, and taught for a year before that at Trinity School, Spokane.

Gotzian says that the school community has gone out of its way to make it possible for her to carry out her teaching ministry, in ways both physical and philosophical.

“They had to build a handicap bathroom,” she said. “An Eagle Scout project was to build a ramp into the school offices because I could never get there before.

“Both the school and parish communities have been very accepting of me,” said Gotzian. “The kids are great, and the families are incredibly supportive of me. I couldn’t do my job without the other teachers that I work with, because they do pick up the slack for me. I can’t stand the cold very well, for example, because I can’t keep my body temperature correct. I don’t have the muscles to do that, so I can’t do the outdoor duties in the cold weather.”

When it comes to serving in liturgical ministries, such as lectoring or being a Eucharistic minister, however, “It’s kind of hard being in a wheelchair because you can’t get up into the altar area. In the past, however, I sang with the choir,” she said.

• Barbara Bonham, also of St. Peter Parish, serves as a lector, participates each Tuesday from 10-11 a.m. in the parish’s Eucharistic adoration, and is active in a parish Renew group that has been in existence since 1988.

Bonham uses an electric cart to get around, and in addition to her parish activities she volunteers at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center.

“I’m about 80 percent bed-ridden,” Bonham said, “but I’m there for events at the retreat center. I greet people and try to cajole them into buying more tickets. Actually, I’m pretty good at it.”

Currently, Bonham is working with another volunteer to raise money to pay for an electric door-opening device for her parish church, which will make it much easier for persons with handicaps to get in and out of the building.

Overall, Bonham feels that the parish has been most accommodating when it comes to her special needs. “For the lectoring, they give me the priest’s microphone to use, and when I come for adoration, Dave Apel, the maintenance man for the parish, brings me from the car into the chapel, and bless his heart, each Tuesday he comes from his home – he only works half-days – a 15-minute drive away, to put me back into my car.”

As a parish lector, Bonham enjoys knowing that she carries out this ministry effectively. “Some of the readings are complicated, but I work very hard at it. I practice. I’ve been lectoring for 20 years,” including seven at St. Peter, and in California before that. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to do this. In a parish where they have to actually give you the microphone, they could have easily said, ‘No, we’re not interested in having you lector.’ I’m also grateful to all the people who reach out to me and enable me to do these things. This happens at the retreat center, too. When I get there, I call from my cell phone, and they send someone out to bring me in. There is a lot of extra effort involved in dealing with me, so I’m grateful to everybody who enables me to participate in parish and diocesan activities.”

Mary Ellen Valencsin (left) is a Eucharistic minister at St. Patrick Parish, Walla Walla, where Father Pat Kerst (center) is pastor and Father Luis Rivera is parochial vicar.

• Mary Ellen Valencsin, of St. Patrick Parish in Walla Walla, works four hours each week at a local McDonald’s restaurant, and she was born with Down Syndrome. Often Mary Ellen serves as a Eucharistic minister, a ministry she has been faithful to for 10 years now.

“The most enjoyable part of this ministry,” Mary Ellen says, “is serving the Blood of Christ to others on Saturday evening at the 5:30 Mass. It is very special to me when one of the other Eucharistic ministers calls me to substitute.”

• Core members of Spokane’s L’Arche Community, who have mental disabilities, help out with various ministries at St. Aloysius Parish. One Sunday each month, for example, Hal Torgenson is one of the parish’s regular ushers at the 11 a.m. Mass, and at the same liturgy each Sunday Sean Doneen helps conduct the choir.

• For more than 10 years, Anna Cammack, 59, has been Religious Education Coordinator at St. Paschal Parish, in Spokane Valley. Legally blind, Cammack earned a master’s degree and keeps all the religious education programs for pre-school through grade eight perking along smoothly. She sometimes helps out with adult programs, as well.

“I have never asked for a lot of accommodation,” Cammack says. “There are computer software programs for the visually impaired, but I’ve never asked for it because most of the paperwork is done by the parish secretary. But I do have a computer for some uses, and I have lots of great volunteers. Father Dan Wetzler was the pastor (now retired) who gave me the opportunity to do this. I knew I could do it, but he gave me the opportunity.”

Being the professional religious educator for St. Pascal Parish brings many rewards, Cammack says. “I enjoy preparing our volunteer teachers and seeing how the kids grow and learn about their faith. Also, I have a weekly adult faith sharing group that I work with that is my support group. Vacation Bible School is going on now, and that’s a blast. We have 15-20 junior high and high school-age helpers, too.”

Cammack calls her religious education ministry “a really enjoyable journey, and I haven’t had much of a problem with the vision, and I’ve gotten a really good response from the parish community.”

Shawn Ahmann (right) is an altar server at St. Mark Parish, Waitsburg, where Father Robert Turner is pastor.

• Shawn Ahmann, 19, is a member of St. Mark Parish in Waitsburg, and has Down Syndrome. Father Robert Turner, pastor of the parishes in Waitsburg, Dayton, and Pomeroy, recalls that Shawn approached him about becoming an altar server.

“His father trained him,” Father Turner says, “and he is very consistent in his ministry. He is very good about reminding me to wear my microphone! I am very thankful for Shawn’s ministry.”

Shawn’s mother, Audrey Aumann, says that Shawn “was very persistent about becoming an altar server. Fearing that he would not do well at it, for a long time I pretended I didn’t understand his request. Eventually, Shawn went over my head and asked Father directly. Though he is not easily understood, when Father asked me what Shawn was saying, I had to explain. He has served regularly ever since. Our parish has been overwhelmingly positive about having Shawn assist at the Mass.”

• Joseph Weis, 46, also of St. Mark, uses a wheelchair and is in his second year of service on the parish council. He says that what he enjoys most about being on the parish council is “having input on how our parish outreach functions on helping people in the community, and being involved in helping things run smoothly in the parish.”

• Rich Feider, of St. Holy Rosary Parish in Pomeroy, also uses a wheelchair. He serves his community as a Eucharistic minister. “I enjoy being able to serve my fellow parishioners as a Eucharistic minister,” Feider said. “Everyone has been very encouraging, and I’ve had no problems at all.”


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