After 30 years, St. Catherine of Siena parishioner retires as area disabilities coordinator

For 30 years, Judy Shute has been overseeing the Special Religious Development (SPRED) program in the Catholic diocese. “It changed my life and my relationship with God.”

SPRED coordinator Judy Shute receives hugs from her students at a retirement party at St. Catherine of Siena.

 Disabilities coordinator at St. Catherine’s retires after 30 years

By Kathy Feist

In 1987, two “special friends” enrolled in St. Catherine of Siena’s Special Religious Development (SPRED) program, a service designed to teach religious education to adults and children with developmental disabilities. It was taught in the rectory basement located near Red Bridge and Grandview roads. Eventually the program spread to other local parishes, thanks to the efforts of parishioner Judy Shute, who helped start the program for SPRED over 30 years ago.

Now 75 years old and dealing with health issues, Shute is retiring from her role. She was honored with a retirement party on August 13 that was held at St. Catherine of Siena. Surrounded by students, staff and parishioners, she was given a statue that will be placed in a garden on the parish grounds. 

Shute and a special friend with the commemorative statue.

Getting involved

Shute had only just converted to Catholicism in 1983 when she was asked by Father Tom Borkowski, then pastor at St. Catherine of Sienna, to work as his part time assistant for the Disabilities and D/Deaf Services at Catholic Charities of Kansas City. After initiating the SPRED program, Borkowski was assigned to a parish in Nevada, leaving Shute to be head coordinator. 

Shute had no background in developmental disabilities when she began. Nevertheless she was smitten with the work, and soon found herself not only coordinating the program among parishes, but also leading a group at St. Catherine’s. 

SPRED spreads

SPRED was started in 1965 in Chicago. Over the years, it spread to dioceses in 14 other states, five European countries, Mexico, two in South Africa and two in Australia.  In Kansas City, it was taught at St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Therese, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Thomas More, St. Regis, and St. James. The former three still maintain the program.

Participants, referred to as “special friends” meet twice a month from September to April with volunteers and others in their age group. They prepare for the lesson, participate in a liturgy and share a celebratory meal.  The lessons come from Chicago. 

A Montessori method

The process in which it is taught “follows along a Montessori method,” says Shute. 

During the first 45 minutes, the friends busy themselves with art activities. “This allows them to put the day behind them and prepare to hear the Word of the Lord,” says Shute. 

They then move to a separate room to hear a short lesson led by the priest which includes symbols and readings. “An example of a symbol would be a mama bird in a nest with her babies,” says Shute. “The leader (priest) will say the mama is feeding her babies like Jesus feeds us with the Word. That is something they can comprehend.” 

After the lesson, the friends then move to another room to experience agape, the Greek term for meal and talk. Friends set a candle-lit table with real dinnerware and cloth napkins. Some get to prepare a vase of flowers for the centerpiece, which they get to take home. They then share food brought in by a volunteer and discuss their week. 

“The friends love it,” says Shute. “It’s a social gathering for them.” 

Over the years, 50 special friends have been confirmed and received communion as a result of SPRED. 

SPRED coordinator Judy Shute receives hugs from her students at a retirement party at St. Catherine of Siena.

Volunteer help

Shute is grateful to the Knights of Columbus who hold a tootsie roll drive to help fund SPRED. 

She is also grateful to her volunteers. “I’m extremely lucky that I’ve had the same catechists for 18 to 20 years,” she says. “They have stayed with me through thick and thin.”

Although SPRED’s attendance is thinning, Shute says the program is always in need of volunteers. 

“Once bitten by the SPRED bug, [volunteers] go in big,” she says. “But we have to get them in here first.” 

Reflecting on the end result of her experience, Shute says, “SPRED truly did change my life and my relationship with God.”

For more information, contact St. Catherine of Siena at 816-761-5483.

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