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Archives Special Education program celebrates 50 years

October 19, 2022

By Deacon Kevin Mastellon
Contributing Writer

WATERTOWN – The Watertown Catechetical Board, a joint venture of the four Catholic parishes in Watertown, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The pastors and others started talking about a unified approach to the delivery of religious services and sacramental preparation in the early 1970s. It was a cooperative effort involving the bishop at the time, Bishop Stanislaus J. Brzana, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Catholic parishes of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the Church of the Holy Family, St. Anthony’s and St. Patrick’s, the Watertown public school district and Jefferson Rehabilitation Center.

This description was published in the North Country Catholic in the summer of 1977:
“The board has functioned to develop the policies of the parish programs and to carry on the administration of the programs which affect students from all parishes. These programs have expanded in the last two years to a full-time high school program, a religious education program for retarded children and adults, a sex education series for ninth graders and an ongoing contract with Mater Dei College in Ogdensburg for extension course in the field of religious education.”

The board announced in 1977 that Sister Maurice Black, a Sister of St. Joseph, had been hired as principal of the School of Religion for Special Education. Her part-time position was funded through grants from the Bishop’s Fund and the Knights of Columbus.

Sister was hired to also work part-time as a teacher at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.

A reorganization of responsibilities at the diocesan level led to some changes in the delivery of services locally.
Sister Diane Ulsamer, the current program coordinator, said “the board kind of changed in its structure” at that time. Now “the Watertown Catechetical Board basically directs the religious education program for people with disabilities, which includes children and adults.”

Today’s program mostly addresses the needs of adults, since most children are mainstreamed through the local schools.

Sister Maurice, who had received her master’s degree in Special Education from the College of St. Rose in Albany, served as the part-time coordinator until 2006. She was succeeded by Sister Diane, initially hired part-time but now the full-time coordinator.

The Special Education program today has three components: the Catholic Education program for adults with disabilities who identify with the Catholic faith by baptism or desire; the Interfaith program which has been held at First Presbyterian Church in Watertown since 1978, and an outreach program that serves eight residences in the Watertown region.

There are 16 adults who attend Catholic classes and services at the Blessed Sacrament Faith Formation and Family Life Center on Massey Street each Saturday.

Thirty adults are registered in the interfaith program which Sister Diane credits to Sister Maurice’s vision.

“She realized there were a lot of people with disabilities out there who had no formalized religion or affiliation with any particular congregation, so she started the interfaith program,” Sister Diane said. “First Presbyterian offered their facility and have since 1978 at no charge. The people of First Presbyterian have been so supportive and generous to the program. We cannot thank them enough.”

The final component is to the eight houses operated by The Arc of Jefferson-St. Lawrence Residential Department in the Watertown area. Volunteers visit each of the houses to share the Word with any resident who cares to participate.

“We have 103 adults served in our programs by 13 catechists,” Sister Diane said. “I think this program gives people with disabilities an opportunity to continue to grow in their faith. It is mainly through the scriptures. With the interfaith group, we have to keep it universal. Every year I develop a program for the year that is scripture based and then with the Catholic group (the Friends of Jesus Group), we intersperse the doctrine and the traditions and the sacramental experiences.”

The Friends of Jesus Group has Mass three or four times during the year and the men and women actively participate. They are the altar server and lectors as well as the congregation. That participation helps them recognize the value of the Mass, Sister Diane said.

“I have been working for 16 years to get the Church, the Catholic community of Watertown, to see this group of God's chosen ones as part of the parish community,” said Sister Diane. “We've made very small steps to incorporate them in the parish life but not near enough.”

In its 50th year, the biggest challenge for the Religious Ed program Sister Diane administers has been coordination with other agencies, principally the Arc, to make transportation available to adults who want to attend the Catholic or Interfaith programs.

“The turnover in leadership at Arc and in the various houses has caused some problems,” Sister said, “but we are working through them.”

Sister Diane Ulsamer sees the future of the of the religious education program for people with disabilities in the outreach program.

“Our challenge, our mission,” she said, “will be to take the Word of God to these wonderful people and not depend on them coming to us.”

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