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Catholic Voice
September 9, 2013   •   VOL. 51, NO. 15   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Fundraising effort to begin in 2014
FOCUS on bringing Cal students closer to Christ
Dynamic leader of SPRED
ministry reflects as she retires

For more than three decades, the life of Diocese of Oakland has been enhanced and enlivened by the ministry of SPRED — Special Religious Education Department — which has brought people with intellectual disabilities into the life of their parishes.


Sept. 29, 10 a.m.

Cathedral of Christ the Light, 2121 Harrison St., Oakland

Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, presiding
Behind this program is Sister Aurora Pérez, a dynamic member of the Sisters of the Holy Family, who has developed a well-trained and faithful community of catechists, who bring the SPRED program — English, Spanish and bilingual — to people, ages 6 to adult, in more than 20 parishes. New SPRED centers are about to open, bringing the one-on-one ministry to more parts of the diocese. As SPRED grows, it is time for Sister Aurora to retire as its director. Sister Aurora, who is serving as a consultant through the end of the year, was awarded the Diocesan Medal of Merit at her retirement lunch in June.

Sister Aurora's inspiration was her own brother, Morrie, and her family. She grew up in East Los Angeles.

Tell us about your brother

At the confirmation for SPRED in June, Sister Aurora Pérez helps prepare one of the joyful young people to receive Communion.
josÉ luis aguirre/The Catholic Voice

What others say about SPRED,
Sister Aurora

You have touched the hearts and souls of families who need to know that their children are embraced by us, the church, in a meaningful, ongoing and lasting way. Through SPRED their children, throughout their entire lives, are able to experience belonging to the church. They come to know God's love for them through life experiences and their catechist's friendship, love and respect which foster their dignity and self-esteem. According to individual capabilities many, because of SPRED, are able to actively participate and to share their gifts in the faith and life of their parish.

Mary Huston, catechist

The Labor Day weekend at San Damiano has become a fixture in my calendar – I even delayed a trip to the United Kingdom so I wouldn't miss the retreat. About three years ago, at the end of the retreat, I mentioned to Sister that since I was pulling back on some other volunteer work I might be interested in participating in SPRED, year round. Who's surprised that I was a Helper Catechist at the Model Center within the month? And the next year, when our Leader Catechist had to stop due to health reasons, I was tapped to take on that role. This year she added training to my repertoire. I remembered, too late, a sage piece of advice I received from a fellow parishioner, years ago. "Don't ever let one of these nuns get your phone number!"

… Thank you, Sister Aurora, for giving me opportunities through which I've come to know God.

Sandy Pimperton, catechist

Sister Aurora Pérez is one of the most thoughtful and passionate advocates for our friends with special needs. She has always taught and served them with the greatest amount of dignity and love. Her wisdom and knowledge of the Method Vivre for SPRED is unparalleled and she will be difficult to replace.

Keith Borchers, director, Department of Evangelization and Catechesis

I was the oldest and my brother was third; there are four of us — five years' difference with my brother. He was a Down's. We didn't know that or know what that meant until he was 2. The whole family was in a car and a bus rammed into us. We were shook up, we had to go the hospital, and that's when the doctor told my mom and dad that he was a Down's and to institutionalize him. My dad said, "What?" "He'll never become president," the doctor said. "How many sons become presidents? This is my son," my dad said. There was no thought about that. He was full of energy all the time. Being the oldest, I helped out. I could be more myself with my brother than anyone else. We were a sports family. My brother was always included.

Going to church

I would sit next to my brother. Morrie wasn't too interested but he did fine. He could join in, but he didn't receive First Communion until I entered the convent. We always prayed at night. He loved the stories about Jesus on TV, at Christmas and Easter.

On parents organizing events

My family, like others at that time, belonged to different parents' groups to help make life easier. I remember my mom organizing the mothers so my brother, and others, wouldn't have to sit on the floor on the bus. He didn't start school till he was in ninth grade. They didn't have room. My mom and dad, in their own way, were leaders. Special Olympics, bowling and birthday parties were other ways to socialize with other kids.

Morrie sealed a deal

When I entered, my brother would come up to visit me. I was negotiating with the Sacred Heart parish council to rent space there. It so happened it was the same day he flew in. My brother liked to dress up. He was in a three-piece suit. I gave my presentation to the parish council, and he went around the room shaking their hands, and giving them peanuts. They did vote, and I credit him.

On losing Morrie

It was heartache when he died at 50, but I know he's a saint and he's not in any pain. And I pray to him to goad God for certain things. When he wanted something, he was persistent.

Some say you are persistent

My mom would call me stubborn. But I would remind myself the Jesuits said I had tenacity. That has paid off during the years, and a sense of humor, when I get too serious.

On her vocation

Thank God for my community. I joined the Sisters of the Holy Family because of their call as religious educators. Ever since I was in eighth grade, I wanted to be a catechist.

Coming to Oakland

At that time I was living in Hanford, below Fresno, as a parish sister, a director of religious education. My community knew that I always had this special interest. They told me about the position and I was asked to go to Concord House, to the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis. I was very nervous. I hadn't been interviewed since before I entered. I remember wearing white, my veil and a great big medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe that my grandmother gave me. They asked me if that was my community's medal. I said, no …. The sisters were visionaries. Bishop Begin brought them from Cleveland. They started the Department of Services to the Retarded, which you would never name your department today. They needed a coordinator for religious nurture. The two sisters were asking me all kinds of questions — what would I like to do, besides religious education.

Was this your first opportunity

Always on the side, as a parish sister, you would have one or two adults, with Down syndrome, who had never received Eucharist. I prepared them. I went by my intuition.

You wanted a retreat

It started at our motherhouse. We slept on the floor. We were all young. I was young.

What year

We are in our 36th year. In the motherhouse, every room was taken with sisters. I wanted an overnight retreat. We slept on the floor. There must have been 30 of us.

The retreat symbol

Being Hispanic, I picked the rose — the beauty of the rose and the thorns, that's life. At our motherhouse we have roses galore, except I forgot they get pruned in March, so I came around the corner on the day and there were no more roses. In those days I didn't have any money. I had to change it there. I had to improvise. Sure enough, it was joy. It was a lot of work. The sisters were open, we ate in the refectory, the parents joined us for Mass and dinner at the close on Sunday.

The next year, we had so many more. Eventually, we went to 27 years at San Damiano. That's the graciousness of the Franciscans: We are treated like kings and queens. It's a real retreat. We're quiet, we meditate, we have our prayer sessions.

You're not someone people say no to…

That's another gift I don't take credit for, that God gave me. I can see the potential, maybe that's the influence of my brother, other people would look at him and box him in and my parents didn't do that. I didn't either. We all have potential. Each of us has different gifts to offer. In SPRED, you work as a team, five or six of seven catechists together. We have a great program we can share, thanks to Chicago.

How did SPRED start

When I was hired here, I found their newsletter. This is what I want. This is what I need. My supervisor sent me to a national conference. I was exposed to one of their founders, Sister Mary Therese Harrington, and she invited me to come and see.

After two years of working in the diocese, I resigned because I knew that we needed more and I had discovered Chicago Method Vivre — French for life — it was beginning the network of SPRED. There's 30-some or more in North America, and in Europe, Australia and Africa. They were recognized with the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal.

The catechists … that's why God called me to Holy Family … I work with volunteers, beautiful people who give at least three hours a week during the SPRED year, from September to May.

I was more than convinced. I kept reading the newspapers, correspondence back and forth. That's when I decided to resign, so I could go to Chicago. I wrote up a grant. I was free to go to any diocese after that. I like the Oakland diocese. They hired me back, and I brought the program, the Method Vivre. Thanks to SPRED Chicago, I am constantly learning, that's part of the role of the coordinator, for me to be trained in this method. If you know how to use the tool, it works. The spirit works among the catechists and friends.

Catechist and friend

There's education that's going on, but not the education we're used to, in classrooms and books. Some of our friends can read, but a very small percentage. Their basic way of learning is through relationships, through environment, through community.

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