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Special Needs Spirituality

Jean Daniel and Liz Shaw, Sisters of La Retraite in Weston-Super-Mare and Bristol, work with people with Special Needs. They got together recently and talked about what had led them into this ministry and how they see it as part of the charism of La Retraite.

What lead you into contact with people who have Special Needs?

JEAN: I’ve been in the Guide movement since I was eleven years old, but it was while I was at Training College that I had the chance to help with a camp for Extension Rangers at Woodlarks in Farnham, Surrey. These severely disabled women lived in great big institutions and hospitals and this was the one week of the year when they got out. They lived such isolated, dull lives that the fun, fresh air, exciting food and lively friends became the high point of their year. I used to help run the weekly meeting for those who lived in St. Benedict’s Hospital, Tooting.

What happened once you entered the Congregation?

JEAN: While I was still a novice in Bruges, this group from St. Benedict’s came over for a holiday at Prinsenhof, so I felt hopeful that I would be able to continue to deepen my appreciation of disabled people. Then, in community at Harborne Hall, Birmingham, Sister Eileen Austin and I were asked by the Catholic Handicapped Children’s Fellowship (CHCF) to help at St. Patrick’s Parish, Dudley Road, with the faith development of handicapped children. This was our first real contact with people with severe learning difficulties.

LIZ: That’s funny! It was through the CHCF that I first had contact with handicapped children as I was helping on the First Communion instruction at a parish in East Croydon, and was asked to take on a boy with profound disability. You had to create different ways of communicating – especially through drawing and reading his body language. And that was without any training! This was years before I entered the Congregation too …. JEAN: Oh yes, you just learned as you went along, discovering how, with the help of other volunteers, you could surround the children in a community of faith where love and joy were the key feelings. I must say we were helped in this by using “Dieu, ma Joie”, a programme developed in France and, in fact, Eileen and I went to a week’s course in Rouen which opened our eyes!

LIZ: When I entered LR, I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher or a nurse, but guess that’s why the field of ‘therapy’ appealed to me. It falls somewhere between the two. I went on a drama-therapy summer school during my degree, and when having a community experience at Emmaus House (in its early days), I met Marie Ware who has gone on to found Dance Voice, a dance-movement therapy and education centre, which is where I work now in Bristol. Mind you, years have passed since first meeting her and my training as a dance-movement therapist. But it’s all happened since I entered in 1980.

Why is the area of Special Needs important to you as a La Retraite Sister?

JEAN: Over the years, the CHCF has become very important to me as in Weston, Bristol and London it has opened up for me a friendship with people who have such potential for loving and praying – people who are so often sidelined in society, ignored or pitied and denied their dignity. They bring out the best in people and can be the source of great joy and freedom from ‘political correctness’!

LIZ: I agree. The pace of society has no time for those who can’t keep up, no patience with slowness and it doesn’t value you if you can’t “produce” anything. People with severe disability produce little that’s visible or valued. You need time with them, to make relationships and keep company with them in order to learn from them and to enjoy the ordinary human interactions, friendships. For me in LR, it’s about valuing as God does every human being, including the apparently insignificant and ‘useless’. God chose incarnation – the whole of humanity is sacred.

JEAN: I remember Bishop Mervyn once saying that a person with handicap is totally untouched by that handicap in his/her soul. That’s always stayed with me. God is in every person.

LIZ: So often it’s simply about being with rather than doing for - though of course it can be both mentally and physically exhausting work!

JEAN: Yes, going to Lourdes is a wonderful experience even though the helpers come back exhausted and I always returned with a sore throat! Other pilgrimages are run by Faith and Light, the offspring of the L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier. Also in Bristol we have two Thomas More houses, set up for people with special needs whose parents can no longer look after them at home and want them to widen their horizons.

LIZ: And then you wrote a book with Fr. David Wilson some years ago, didn’t you, about faith development with what was described then as ‘mentally handicapped’?

JEAN: Yes, that was 1975! It was called “I Am With You” and was written in response to a request by the Bishops Conference of England and Wales to inspire and inform this area of catechesis.

LIZ: So you’ve had this love of people with Special Needs nearly all your life?

JEAN: Well – quite a lot of it. And not only me, but several other La Retraite Sisters – Sheila Toal and Norrie McInerny; Sheila Hayes, Mary Earls, Ellen Sheridan and Kathleen Withers all came to help at our Fellowship Club holidays at St. Rose’s, Stroud, and Paddy O’Connell belongs to the Faith and Light group in Salisbury.

Several sixth formers at La Retraite Clifton, used to come and help with ‘Tuesday Friends’, a faith group with children at Stoke Park and Purdown Mental Subnormality Hospitals (as they were known). I think it would be super if more young people could get involved in care or church situations as it really brings your own faith alive.

LIZ: Well, mine came about by helping on the First Communion class in a parish and having a special little boy to work with. And here I am years later working professionally in this field as a registered dance-movement therapist and also being a member of a religious congregation.

So, thanks Jean for talking with me about our mutual passion and I look forward to working with you on our pilot day next March 2009 to offer a retreat day in Weston for adults with special needs.

JEAN: I suppose we can really say that we’re tuning into our La Retraite Orientations …..

LIZ: Yes, that “just as God reaches out to us in our humanity, as Sisters of La Retraite, we want to reach out to others …and put this Relational Dimension at the heart of our choices, commitments and our life together.”

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