Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Parents Brad and Catherine, with Leo, 2, Celine, 8, and Luke, 5, at their home in Northeast Portland.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Parents Brad and Catherine, with Leo, 2, Celine, 8, and Luke, 5, at their home in Northeast Portland.
Two-year-old Leo Glavan loves being surrounded by toys in his playroom and having his toes tickled. He loves his family. And when Leo shows up on Sundays for Mass at the Madeleine, he loves to get high fives and hugs from his parish family.

“People at the parish have known Leo since he was an infant,” said his mother, Catherine. “And that’s what we want for him, for people to know him as a person and not for him to be immediately identified by a diagnosis of Down syndrome.” 
Because of that diagnosis, little Leo will need more support than his siblings. He will reach the same milestones as Celine (who is 8) and Luke (5), but at his own pace.

Despite all of this, Leo has changed the faith lives of his parents and their connection with their Catholic community at the Madeleine Parish in Northeast Portland. 

Brad and Catherine didn’t know about their son’s diagnosis until the day he was born.

“We were wondering, ‘What does this mean for Leo and for us?’ and ‘What are we going to do?’” Brad said. However, on the first day they returned to Mass after Leo came home from the hospital, Father Mike Biewend connected the couple with another parishioner who has an older son with Down syndrome. Susie Anderson sat patiently and answered Brad and Catherine’s questions for an hour about the joys and challenges to come.

Though they are cradle Catholics who consider Mass to be a “non-negotiable” part of their weekend, Catherine and Brad discovered that their faith was strengthened with the arrival of their youngest son.

“A message that resonates with me is that we are all imperfect and vulnerable,” Brad said. “And when Leo came along, there was no avoiding that. We realized we needed help, and that help was overwhelmingly there.”

This is the type of faith-filled community the church in Western Oregon aims to foster for its parishioners with disabilities, said Dorothy Coughlin, director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office for People with Disabilities. The office provides pastoral support, training and resources to enable people with disabilities to participate fully in the life of their faith community.

The office provides training for catechists who want to create an environment where all kinds of children and their families know they are valued and accepted.

“In the past, families who have children with disabilities expected for the church [leadership] to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not equipped to serve your child,’ and the family never gets the opportunity to be a part of the community,” Coughlin said. “We’ve learned how to provide accommodations so when these families come to Mass, they are instead greeted with, ‘Hi, we’re glad you’re here.’”

During the 10 a.m. Mass on Sundays, Leo can often be found toddling up and down the aisles or playing in the baptismal font. Sitting still isn’t part of Leo’s Mass experience, but that doesn’t mean he receives God’s grace any less fully than others at Mass. During coffee and donuts, the boy is joyfully carried around and cuddled by the members of his extended parish family.

Father Tim Mockaitis is pastor at, Queen of Peace in Salem, one of the parishes in the archdiocese that hosts a regular Mass adapted for people with developmental disabilities. He also finds creative ways to accommodate and include people with disabilities in all of the parish’s regularly scheduled services and activities.

One parishioner with autism, Kyle Shewey, can get restless when his mother Renee leaves his side during Mass, and so she had always stayed seated during communion to avoid a disruption. The Queen of Peace School principal noticed and asked Renee if she and Kyle wanted to participate. Kyle won’t drink from the chalice unless his mother offers it to him, so Father Mockaitis sets aside a separate chalice for Kyle, which he carries to the back of the church where the mother and son usually sit.  

“The grace of God works within the heart of a person like Kyle in a special way,” Father Mockaitis said.

Renee loves the acceptance that the community has offered Kyle, who may not show it, but is hyper sensitive to what people are thinking and feeling about him.
As someone who was raised in the Catholic faith, Renee felt her son was missing out on important catechesis. Now, at the adapted Masses, he enjoys the music, knows the Our Father prayer and is so excited for Mass that he “gallops” into the church, she said.

“He does listen and absorbs a lot, he just doesn’t verbalize it,” Renee said. “But this has been very rewarding for him.”

The spirit and vision of the church is to have all children and their families engage as fully as possible, Coughlin said. That engagement starts with relationships, and a church that has an open heart and consciousness.

“These families bring incredible gifts to our community,” she said.

The adapted Mass at Queen of Peace are on first Tuesdays, every other month at 5:30 p.m. Adapted Masses are also held in Portland on second Sundays at 12:30 p.m. at St. Rose of Lima and fourth Sundays at 2:45 p.m., at St. Pius X Parish. St. Alexander in Cornelius has an adapted Mass in Spanish on first Sundays at 2:30 p.m.