| By Mary D. Dillard

A diocesan legacy of love

The Nazareth House apostolate

“As the U.S. Bishops point out, if a parish actively or passively omits people with disabilities, they do not have a true community.” — Judy Gregory, program coordinator for Nazareth House Huntsville

Back in the 1960s, a young Sister of Mercy by the name of Sister Mary Vernon Gentle was teaching first grade at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic School in Homewood when she came to the realization that some of God’s children were being overlooked and excluded from becoming full participants in the Body of Christ. Wanting to help, she began ministering to those with disabilities in 1966. Two years later, an Irish priest new to the diocese, Father Patrick Cullen, joined forces with the sister, and together they founded the Nazareth House apostolate.

For the next half century, the duo ministered to hundreds of children all over the diocese, catechizing them in their faith and allowing them to more fully participate in the sacraments, a feat that would not have been possible without the full funding of the Catholic Charities appeal. Sadly, in November 2021, Sister passed away following a short illness, leaving Father Cullen at a crossroads.

Shortly after Sister’s funeral Mass, Father Cullen received a letter from a former catechist, Sarah Houser. While attending John Carroll Catholic High School in Birmingham in the 1990s, Houser met Sister during a service night and decided to participate in the program. She would go on to serve Nazareth House as a catechist for three years until she left Alabama to attend Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and later Boston College Graduate School of Social Work in Massachusetts.

Being a part of Nazareth House led Houser to pursue a career in social work. Her work experience and past involvement with the apostolate prompted Houser to write that letter to Father Cullen, offering her assistance. The two met, and within a month, she began serving Nazareth House as the program coordinator for Birmingham.

Amazingly, after over 20 years, one of the students recognized Houser, and she, in turn, recognized quite a few students. However, two new faces caught her eye: Michelle Vazquez Perez and Aracely Mancilla Moreno.

Perez, a 20-year-old, pre-dental student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has been teaching Moreno at Nazareth House for six years, since Perez was a freshman in high school. Her road to Nazareth House began as the only child of two parents who were deeply involved in volunteer work at their parish, St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Hoover. Seeing the real fruits of volunteer work helped Perez conclude she was meant to serve others. When her mother pointed out a Nazareth House flier, she “felt God was calling” her to the apostolate.

“At first, I was nervous,” Perez remembers. “Little did I know how much the program would drastically impact my life.” When she arrived for her first day, she was paired with Moreno, a Hispanic, non-verbal girl, five years her junior. Upon meeting, the two “instantly connected.” One major connection was that they both “talk to God in Spanish.”

From that day forward, Perez viewed and treated Moreno as a little sister. Even with the occasional challenge stemming from Moreno’s disability, Perez contends that she has always received more than she has given.

For Houser, Perez’s feelings are indicative of the program’s success. She explains, “I am confident the reason the program has been successful for so long is because it’s utilizing more of a peer relationship. … [Perez and Moreno] look so excited when they see each other and start the morning. It’s a very meaningful relationship.” The relationship is one Perez wishes more Hispanic teenagers would be open to experiencing.

Being able to experience that relationship has allowed both Perez and Moreno to grow in their relationship with God. For Moreno, she recently received her First Communion. For Perez, teaching such simple concepts as “God loves you” and “Jesus is your friend” opened her eyes and enlightened her heart. “I feel like those lessons sometimes get forgotten. I had to explore my faith because I am telling Aracely that God loves her. I know God loves me, too, but how can I show God that I love Him?”

Most certainly, Perez is showing her love of the Father through her treatment of all His children, especially those on the fringes, and that is the beauty of the Nazareth House apostolate. As those with intellectual and developmental disabilities are brought into fuller participation in their faith, the program is ultimately changing the lives of all those involved by teaching the simple, yet profoundly difficult, lesson of love, for it is through love that the mystical Body of Christ will be fully realized.

Nazareth House is an apostolate providing education, liturgy, and advocacy for and with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Birmingham diocese. For example, this may include individuals with autism spectrum disorder as well as those with genetic conditions such as Down syndrome. Nazareth House currently provides individualized religious education and sacramental preparation programming  in Birmingham and Huntsville. While most children and young adults with disabilities are optimally served in their home parishes, some benefit from the Nazareth House model, which connects students with a high school volunteer catechist or teacher who meets with them one-on-one or in a small group setting.

For decades, Catholic high school students have served as volunteer catechists. Catechists earn volunteer hours by teaching weekly during the school year, and receive the opportunity to form a meaningful peer relationship and friendship with the children and adults they teach. Volunteering at Nazareth House has informed many individuals’ future career choices in medicine, law, social work, education, and business. Both of the current program coordinators are former volunteers as well.

The experience can help participants become more sensitive to the needs of individuals with disabilities and their families and foster a greater capacity for promoting inclusion.

Nazareth House is currently recruiting rising high school students to teach in English or Spanish for the 2023/2024 school year in Birmingham or Huntsville.

In addition to the unique religious education model offered in Birmingham and Huntsville, Nazareth House provides advocacy and consultation, and resources for religious education to anyone in the diocese seeking to obtain support related to intellectual or developmental disabilities.

For more information, families, educators, pastors, and parish staff should contact Sarah Houser at sawisely@gmail.com.