Inclusion Initiative Brings Together Southern Maine Parishes in Support of Persons with Disabilities

“Enlarge the space for your tent. Spread out your tent cloths unsparingly; lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs” (Isaiah 54:2).

Inclusion involves more than adding ramps and electronic door openers on parish properties. It starts with changing attitudes and outlook. That was among the messages shared at the first regional gathering of the inclusion initiative, held at Holy Martyrs of North America Church in Falmouth on Wednesday, April 10.

The goal of the gatherings, which are also being held in Calais and Caribou this week, is to create a unifying, comprehensive framework to help parishes in the diocese grow in awareness and inclusion of persons with disabilities so that they can be integrated into parish life. This includes ensuring that they feel valued, welcomed, and affirmed through accessibility, attitudes, language, participation, and a sense of belonging.

“What the Diocese of Portland is doing in three locations, regional locations, is truly groundbreaking,” said Charlene Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD), the guest presenter. “It’s never been done before. I have not seen another diocese create a framework for disability ministry.”

In all, representatives from 21 parishes from across the state are participating in the Inclusion Initiative sessions including clergy, parish leaders, and parishioners.

Mia Rengifo, from Prince of Peace Parish in Lewiston, attended the Falmouth meeting with her family. Mia spoke for her brother, Rodrigo, who is a person with a disability.

“This is important. He can feel more welcome in the Church and be a more active member of the Church and Mass,” she said.

Laurie Jean Gombari, from Good Shepherd Parish in Saco, has a son who is 20 years old and living with disabilities, including different sensory issues. She shared with those in attendance what she told him when he was a child: “You are going to have to adapt to the world because they are not going to adapt to you.”

Now, she said that the Inclusion Initiative gives her hope that “the world will adapt to him now.…that they will be more welcoming and say, ‘We just need to accept people where they are.’ All our souls are God’s souls.”

The in-person gatherings are being presented by the Diocese of Portland’s Office of Lifelong Faith Formation. They are intended to educate parishes about the Inclusion Initiative, receive input, and share information and ideas.

“As Catholics, we know that faith is lifelong. Any effort that we work on is also lifelong. The intent is for us to create a framework that can help parishes in this long-term, impactful effort with persons with disabilities. The conversation begins here and continues at the local level in parishes,” said Georgette Dionne, coordinator of Children & Adult Ministries for the Diocese of Portland.

“This format of getting together with more and more people who are exposed to this population and have a passion for them, I think this is critically important,” Johanna White of the Parish of the Holy Eucharist in Falmouth said. “It has been nice to hear everyone’s backgrounds and perspectives. We have a wealth of knowledge among our parishioners.”

“It is important to recognize people where they are and how to meet them and make room for everyone. This is another opportunity to become more aware of changes and needs in our parish community to make space in our tent for everyone,” said Deacon Larry Guertin, parish life coordinator at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Westbrook.

According to U.S. Census data from 2022, an estimated 16% of Maine people live with some kind of disability that impacts how they perform daily functions. Based on those figures, that could mean that nearly 22,000 of the Diocese of Portland’s 135,000 members live with some form of disability.

The hope is that these conversations will raise parish awareness about that and provide opportunities for education, conversation, action steps, and best practices for long-term, systemic, and impactful growth.

“I suspect anyone leaving a meeting like this with the dialogue, discussions, group presentations, and the documents and paperwork...they’re going to go back energized, affirmed. I think they will start implementing ideas immediately,” Katra said.

The inclusion initiative is made possible by a grant from the Lay Continuing Education & Formation Endowment of the Catholic Foundation of Maine.

For more information: Inclusion Initiative | Diocese of Portland (

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attendees at the meeting
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