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Archives Sister aids ‘God’s beloved’ in learning the faith

November 4, 2020

By Jessica Hargrave
Contributing Writer

WATERTOWN – Honest, authentic, sincere. They’re words used to describe the people who make up the Special Religious Education Program in Watertown. While some would call them special needs, the program’s coordinator sees them as gifted and God’s beloved. That coordinator is Sister Diane Marie Ulsamer, a Sister of St. Joseph, who passionately feels her ministry has been the greatest blessing in her life.

“We want to provide our people with the opportunity to be part of a faith community in an environment that is secure for them and where they can feel comfortable,” said Sister Diane.

The Religious Education program for persons with disabilities was established in the Watertown area in 1971 when four pastors were concerned about a handful of young students who were to prepare for the sacraments. The program was the first of its kind in the Diocese of Ogdensburg. Today the program has over 100 participants, both children and adults, and has evolved into three groups that meet weekly.

The interfaith group welcomes people of all denominations who want to share their faith stories, prayers, music and activities. Many who attend the interfaith group are unsure of their faith, but they know Jesus loves them, and to Sister Diane, that’s what matters.

“They know this a sacred time, and we’re talking about ‘God loves me,’ and that’s all they need to know, that God loves us and accepts us as we are because he made us who we are,” said Sister Diane.

She said starting the group was scary, since she knew no one and no one knew her, but within 10 minutes the ice was broken, and they were off. When program participants stood up and shared from the heart, everyone was moved by their honesty. Sometimes, they become upset while sharing, which comes from a place where they don’t feel accepted or heard.

Eagerly, a non-verbal young woman puts her hands together in the praying position to express to her mother that it’s time to go to the Friends of Jesus group. A gesture so simple, yet so genuine and speaks from the heart. Friends of Jesus is a Catholic group in the program that offers instruction of Catholic teachings, reception of the sacraments, liturgy and prayer services.

Sister Diane is overjoyed by the impact she has made on their lives and it shows.

“When they say, ‘I will pray for you, Sister,’ they will pray until you tell them the prayer has been answered,” she said. “They will continue to pray for years, because they promised.”

For the faithful who are unable to attend the on-site sessions, the Outreach Program allows catechists to travel to individual homes and JRC residences – group homes for individuals in need of supported housing – to help make that special connection between God and His Beloved. Catechists traveling to the homes conduct prayer services and talk about scripture and music.

“Their response to the catechists walking into the building is amazing,” said Sister Diane. “Even though many of them can’t speak, their body language speaks volumes.”

Unfortunately, the program’s social events are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The participants look forward each year to a day retreat, an overnight trip to the Sight & Sound Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, holiday meals, and a big birthday celebration which allows them social interaction and an opportunity to build friendships.

“Don’t ever underestimate the potential of these people,” said Sister Diane. “I don’t look at their disabilities, I look for their abilities because they all have abilities. They have gifts and potentials and it’s my goal to allow them to grow into the best person they can be.”

All are welcome to join the weekly sessions regardless of race, sex, creed, disability, or national origin.

If you are interested in volunteering or enrolling a child or adult into the program, call Sister Diane at (315)782-0030, or she can be reached by email, specialreligioused@yahoo.com.

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