Catholic Sentinel photos by Clarice Keating
Dorothy Coughlin speaks to congregation at Mass for people with disabilities. Families traveled from all over to celebrate Coughlin's birthday.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Clarice Keating
Dorothy Coughlin speaks to congregation at Mass for people with disabilities. Families traveled from all over to celebrate Coughlin's birthday.
CORNELIUS — “From whom do you learn how to love?” Father David Schiferl called out to the packed pews of St. Alexander Church. Young children’s voices piped up:

“Mi madre!”


“Mi familia.”


Then someone called out, “Dorothy Coughlin,” and the entire room turned to smile at the guest of honor, the woman who serves as director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office for People with Disabilities.

Coughlin helped found the office in the 1970s, but has advocated for people with disabilities her entire life, starting with her sister, Barbara, who was born with a developmental disability.

“We have all had an opportunity over the years to learn how to love by watching Dorothy, living with Dorothy and celebrating with Dorothy,” Father Schiferl said during the service, a bilingual liturgy adapted for people of all abilities. Families from all over the Archdiocese of Portland, even as far away as Grants Pass, gathered Sunday to honor Coughlin during a surprise birthday celebration.

At the Mass, bells were handed out to everyone, so those who don’t speak or sing could chime along with the choir. Those who are vocal constantly were encouraged to be themselves, not hushed to be quiet.

The Spanish adapted Mass, offered first Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at St. Alexander, changed the way Martha Guzman and her son Samuel, 17, experience the liturgy together. Martha called Coughlin an “angel” in their lives. Samuel is developmentally disabled and requires a hefty wheelchair.

“When you come to normal Mass, there is no space for kids like mine — kids like mine also require a lot of attention,” she said. “It’s a lot better to be with people who understand how you feel in your heart.”

The adapted Masses are offered in four parishes each month. In addition to St. Alexander’s Spanish service, English adapted Masses are offered: at 12:30 p.m. on second Sundays at St. Rose of Lima Church in Northeast Portland; at 2:45 p.m. on fourth Sundays at St. Pius X Church in Northwest Portland; and at 5:30 p.m. on first Tuesdays at Queen of Peace Church in Salem.

At last weekend’s service, after families went forward to give thanks to their honored friend, Coughlin stood at the ambo, so overcome with emotion she could barely speak.

“We began very simply,” she said. “And today it fills my heart to see in the church all of our families who speak English and our Hispanic families together as one family,” she said. “I think this is what Jesus meant in the gospel to love one another.”

She joked about the surprise: “I kept seeing people [during the Mass] and thinking, ‘Now, what are you doing here?’”

Coughlin’s children and friends gathered around her as she spoke.

“The love that you feel is the love I receive from you, and the love God has given us,” she said. “As one family, we share our sorrows. We know we don’t suffer alone, and we also celebrate our joys together.” 

After the service, everyone headed outside on the mild fall evening for a potluck dinner, with music and dancing.

In 1978, Coughlin obtained a master’s degree at the University of San Francisco, the same year the U.S. Catholic Bishops released a pastoral statement on persons with disabilities. She won a grant to work with the population and was given an office at St. Peter Parish in Southeast Portland. Soon, the program moved to the archdiocese’s pastoral center.

Coughlin helped create a buddy program, pairing people with disabilities and students at the University of Portland, as well as the Shamrock REX Faith Community in Salem, the Hand-in-Hand Festival of St. Andrew Church in Portland, and the L’Arche community in Portland. She coordinates annual English and Spanish retreats that give families of children with disabilities a chance to have fun together, relax, celebrate their faith and build friendships.

Engracia Arellano, a member of St. James Parish in McMinnville, cherishes the retreats. She and her family have been attending since 2000.

In addition to her 8-year-old daughter Elizabeth, Arellano has a 10-year-old son, Mark, who lives with Down syndrome and a heart defect. Her first son, Joseph, died in 2010 at age 15. He had severe cerebral palsy.

“She is always there for us,” Arellano said. “She treats us the same as everyone else. She doesn’t see differences.”

When the two women talk, the busy director always remembers to tell Arellano that she remembers Joseph and prays for him.

“She doesn’t ever forget him, even though he passed away,” Arellano said. “That’s really loving.”

Ted Seeber’s son, Christopher, has cerebral palsy. The dad sought out Coughlin when it became apparent that Christopher’s learning disabilities were affecting his religious education.

Through the Knights of Columbus Council that serves St. Clare and St. John Fisher parishes, Seeber, a Knight, has helped provide financial support for the diocesan retreats.

“The highlights are a talent show and, of course, the chance to go to Mass together as a family in a situation where nobody is bothered by a disabled child’s actions or needs,” Seeber wrote to the Knights’ magazine.

Coughlin’s colleague at the Department of Evangelization, Adriana Antelo, said the director works tirelessly to further the inclusion of all people with disabilities in the religious life of their communities.  

“She sees the presence of God in all people regardless of abilities,” Antelo said.