Tommy Schroeder rings the bells during the Consecration at St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Calhoun. He is pictured with parishioners Mike and Judy Wozny. MIKE MAY/STAFF

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Altar server brings joy to Fort Calhoun parish

Tommy Schroeder loves to ring the bells.

That’s one of the tasks he takes seriously and strives to execute perfectly as an altar server during Mass at St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Calhoun.

One can see his concentration as he carefully places the missal on the altar or leans in to pour water over the priest’s fingers during the rite of purification.

As a person with Down syndrome, Tommy may have some learning challenges, but as an altar server he has his duties down pat.

Tommy, age 19, is the son of parishioners Tom and Donna Schroeder, and serving the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass is a highlight of his week, his mother said.

Tommy is pictured at home with parents Donna and Tom Schroeder. MIKE MAY/STAFF

In its 1978 document “Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stressed the importance of welcoming people with disabilities into full participation in the Church and the sacraments and the need to appreciate the contributions they offer to the Church.

In this town of about 1,000 people, more than half of whom are parishioners, that acceptance and appreciation is on full display concerning Tommy.

“Everybody in the parish knows and loves Tommy,” said Ken Zeller, the parishioner who trains altar servers, and who took Tommy under his wing five years ago.

Zeller said he loves serving Mass with Tommy and noted that after Mass “there’s always at least one person, if not a dozen, that compliment him on the job he did. … It just inflates him.”

“I like to help at church,” Tommy said. “I want to make Jesus happy, and the Holy Spirit helps me.”

“Tommy and I have become very close,” Zeller said. “We’re buddies.” And Tommy pays close attention to any directions Zeller gives him.

Tommy and Ken Zeller talk before a recent Mass. MIKE MAY/STAFF

“If there’s something different (planned for the Mass) he listens very closely, very intently,” he said. “Tommy doesn’t shirk his duties at all.” 

A DESIRE TO PARTICIPATE

The Schroeders have taken Tommy to Mass since he was a baby, and even as a small child he was very attentive, they said, mimicking all the hand gestures that the priest performed.

“He’s always enjoyed the Mass because he likes things that have a routine,” Donna said.

As a young adolescent he began taking part in Mass as a candle bearer. He later began carrying the crucifix in procession, and finally, in the past year, began training as an altar server.

Through his involvement in parish events, he also became acquainted with many of the members of the parish’s Knights of Columbus Council 10305. Along the way, the council gave Tommy the distinction of becoming an honorary Knight for his service to the parish. 

Parishioner, former Grand Knight and now council trustee Jim Hubschman said Tommy began asking to take part in the council’s monthly “Knights Mass,” where members wearing their Knights of Columbus polo shirts lead a Rosary before Mass, serve the Mass, read the readings and take up the collection.

So for the past several years, as an honorary Knight, Tommy has proudly worn his Knights shirt and participated with his brother Knights in the monthly Mass.

“He’s one of the guys,” Hubschman said. “It’s given him a lot of self confidence, and he knows he’s welcomed.”

And Tommy’s presence at Mass uplifts the congregation, he said. “He brings a smile to everyone in attendance.”

Hubschman added that although Tommy may have some challenges, his participation in Mass reminds people that “those with disabilities are just one of us” and have gifts to offer – chief among them, Tommy’s obvious joy at being able to serve.

“He is proud of his service there and does take it seriously,” Donna said. “He feels it’s an honor to do that.”

SPIRITUAL GROWTH

While a student at the public elementary school in Fort Calhoun, Tommy took part in the parish’s religious education classes and received the sacraments along with his classmates.

Although sometimes requiring lessons to be modified for Tommy’s learning level, the religious education teachers were accommodating and helpful, Donna said.

His spiritual growth was further nurtured as a student at Madonna School in Omaha, a Catholic school providing educational programs for children and young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He graduated last year from the school’s high school program as an “outstanding student” and is currently attending the school’s three-year transition program, which prepares students for employment and independent living.

“I was really pleased with the religious education he received there,” Donna said. “I think this last year Jesus really became his friend. I just remember feeling so happy that he finally felt a connection to Jesus.”

With a faith that embodies a childlike innocence, Tommy still faithfully prays his nightly prayers with his mother.

“Jesus is my friend,” he said. “I tell Jesus to say ‘hi’ to my dogs, Gus and Annie, in heaven and say ‘hi’ to my grandma and grandpa in heaven. Jesus is good to them. I tell Jesus ‘Thank you for my family.’”

And serving at Mass has given Tommy a way to give back.

“Initially his biggest desire was for the sense of community and belonging,” Donna said. “And, it’s just part of his nature that he wants to be helpful.”

“I think it makes him think more about service for others because he knows that’s what Jesus wants him to do,” she said.