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Building inclusive parishes 

Vicar General Fr Martin Sirju (right) gives communion to Rebecca Peake at an October 14 Mass at the Arouca Holy Trinity RC Pastoral Centre. The second group of candidates from the Bethesda Community received First Communion during the Mass.

By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ, & Director, CREDI
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As you reflect on the draft Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan, consider what needs to be done to make your parish more inclusive and accessible for persons with disabilities. They are part of our community and we must demonstrate that we respect their inherent, inviolable, and inalienable dignity as children of God.

One of the groups involved in meeting the needs of persons with disabilities is the Bethesda Catholic Community of Trinidad and Tobago ( Following a meeting with Archbishop Gordon, its founder, Saira Joseph La Foucade, came to see me with her colleague, Zobida Maharaj, to seek my assistance to establish her organisation as an NGO.  Here is Saira’s journey so far: 

At the First Holy Communion of my niece, the presiding priest recognised that, for some, the next time you see them is for their Confirmation, the next their wedding and then after for their funeral. It suddenly dawned on me that the next time my son would attend Mass would be for his funeral. I decided to take action.

As an autistic non-verbal and low-functioning person he is also hyperactive and has sensory issues. This prevented him from being able to attend Mass and visit most places that you take for granted, like the supermarket, the mall or cinema. I visited Archbishop Harris with a view to having special Masses so that not only my son but others like him could attend Mass.

With his blessings a Sensory Friendly Mass started in June 2015. The first Mass was celebrated by Fr Dexter Brereton at the chapel at Archbishop’s House. Within three months we outgrew the chapel. Fr Brereton welcomed us to his parish—Holy Trinity, Arouca RC Pastoral Centre. He has been championing our cause.

In December 2015, we launched our name as Bethesda Catholic Community of Trinidad and Tobago and introduced an executive committee. Over the past three years we have increased in numbers and at every Mass we have one or two new families join.

We have added another Mass in the Southern Vicariate and hope to start in the Central Vicariate in 2019. We have begun preparing people with disabilities (PwDs) for the sacraments and have so far prepared 11 candidates of various disabilities.

However there remained one unanswered question that ALL parents of persons with moderate to severe disability ask themselves: “What will happen to my child when I die?”.

I visited Archbishop Harris again, who once more listened with intent and empathy, and he agreed that something needed to be done. He started the discussion to at least provide land for the building of a group home.

At this home we propose to provide assisted living for adults who can partly take care of themselves, full assistance for those adults who would need, and respite— temporary care of PwDs so that their families can get relief for their career and life in general.

In the interim I began researching on international group homes for PwDs and reviewed any public document on the internet that could assist with this project.

In September 2018, the Office of the Chancery of the Archdiocese of POS confirmed verbally to me that Archbishop Gordon had approved the allocation of 10 acres of land at Todd’s Road/Arena Road to the Bethesda community—free, but with no monetary funding.

A confirmation meeting was held with the Archbishop, Tracy Hutchison Wallace and myself of Bethesda on November 7. We shared our vision. He indicated his approval and stated that the community must not be an institution but rather a dignified living accommodation open to all disabilities and all religions. It must have a Catholic ethos.

He will appoint the chairperson and approve the Board of Directors. We were told to contact Leela Ramdeen and register as an NGO. We will call it: BethesdaTT. International adult group homes for PwDs, mainly L’Arche and Camphill Copake will inform our plans.

We are in the process of registering as an NGO and have started consultation with the public. There will be five stakeholder meetings across T&T. The first was held on November 18 in Central. The second will be held December 2 at Living Water Community, Frederick St, Port of Spain, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. All are invited to attend.

This is a long term, multi-phased project that will need the help of many hands. Help us to achieve our Mission: ‘To provide dignified living and working opportunities for adults with moderate to severe disabilities, where they can be supported to have a meaningful life.’”