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St. Bernadette’s to hold inclusive Mass on Dec. 27


Welcoming and accommodating are two different things. All churches are supposed to be welcoming. But at St. Bernadette Parish in Orchard Park, much work has gone into including people with disabilities into the rituals of the faith.

On Monday, Dec. 27 at 7 p.m., St. Bernadette’s will hold an inclusive Christmas Mass for all people with disabilities. A drop off spot is designed for people with mobility issues. Greeters will help guide visitors to their seats. The church offers much space for social distancing, as well as movement, as some people with autism may feel the need to move around or pace. A sensory room has also been set up for people with autism. The Mass will be signed by Sister Conchetta LoPriesti, OSF. Many of the songs will be recited rather than sung. The chosen songs will be popular and familiar, so people can follow along without having to read the lyrics. Low-gluten hosts will be available.

“Whatever is their worship mode, whether it be verbal, gestures, singing,” said Sharon Urbaniak, Faith Formation director. “We don’t expect it to be a quiet Mass.”

Members of the disabled community will also be involved with the organization of the Mass. A musical quartet will perform a concerto written by Brielle Stewart, a member of St. Bernadette’s Open Doors Ministry and God’s Family program, which support those with disabilities. The 14-year-old, who has autism and is non-verbal, has special gifts that allow her the ability to compose classical music.

“She produced a symphony that the quartet will perform at Communion time,” said Urbaniak.

It was Brielle who suggested the Inclusive Mass while attending an Open Doors meeting.

“It’s really a beautiful full-circle moment that they asked her to write a piece for this Mass,” said Tobi Stewart, Brielle’s mother. “They’re very gracious and ask her about her opinion on many things. They’ve been wonderful. I think St. Bernadette’s is the gold standard for inclusion. I wish all parishes could see what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

The Stewarts know the plight of many families with disabled family members. They want to attend Mass, but there is a concern that a child that needs to move around or make noise will be disruptive or worse, unwelcome. Some might feel intimidated to attend a Christmas Mass due to the crowds and sensory input.

Tobi and Brielle sat in on a planning meeting for St. Bernadette’s first inclusive Mass three years ago to offer their input in what they would like to see at the Mass.

“It’s a very safe, accessible environment,” said Tobi.  

One mother came to the first Christmas Mass with her 22-year-old son, saying she had never taken her son to a Christmas Mass before. Instead, She would bring him to an empty church so he would wander and explore.

“She felt this was the first time she could celebrate Christmas the proper way with her son, by bringing him to our Mass. That was really special to us that we could offer it,” Urbaniak said.

Father Robert Owczarczak, parish administrator, will celebrate the Mass and hear confessions at 6 p.m.

“A lot of times people with special needs aren’t given the opportunity or it’s hard for them to get to the sacrament of confession,” explained Urbaniak, adding that a book with communication symbols will be used to help non-verbal people through confession. This Mass is part of an ongoing effort from the Open Doors Ministry to make the parish more inclusive to everyone.


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