FAIRFIELD -- Bright sunflowers and smiling faces helped to transform the gym into a sanctuary at Saint Catherine Center in Fairfield as more than 125 students and their families, faculty, staff, and friends gathered together for a Mass on Sept. 22 to celebrate 20 years of service to young people with disabilities.

The Most Reverend Frank J. Caggiano, Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, was the principal celebrant at the Mass, along with concelebrants Msgr. Robert Weiss, board member at Saint Catherine Center and pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Newtown, and Msgr. William Scheyd.

Saint Catherine Academy opened in 1999 on the campus of the Catholic Center in Bridgeport as an alternative education option for children with disabilities. In 2003, the Academy was granted approval by the State of Connecticut Department of Education as a private special education program and began accepting placements from area public school districts as well as directly from parents. As enrollment grew, funds were raised for a new facility on Tahmore Drive in Fairfield, which opened in 2007.

As students graduated from the Academy, the need for a comprehensive day program for young adults became a clear priority. In 2014 the Diocese of Bridgeport established Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs as an umbrella organization comprised of Saint Catherine Academy; an Adult Day Program; and the Office of Parish & Community Support. The Center, located on Tahmore Drive in Fairfield, now serves 14 students in the Academy and 26 young adults through the Adult Day Program.

“How blessed are we that for 20 years we have Saint Catherine’s Academy and those who lead it, who see the world differently,” Bishop Caggiano said. “Everyone who comes here is here because they are beloved, first by God and then by His servants who are you and me.”

Readers for the service included Charles Chiusano of Fairfield, Chairman of the Center’s Board; Anna Stowe, an Academy student; and Eric Spencer, Director of Education. Erin Aoyama led the congregation in song. A reception followed the service. The sunflowers were donated by Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens of Easton.

The bishop expressed appreciation to the Saint Catherine Center Board. “To have a vision is one thing. To make it real is another,” he said. He also recognized Helen Burland, Executive Director, for being the “animator of this entire enterprise,” and thanked the young people of the Center. “You keep our vision clear,” he said.

Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs includes Saint Catherine Academy, a state-approved, private special education school in Fairfield, serving students ages 5-21 of all faiths who are impacted with autism, intellectual, and developmental disabilities. It also includes an Adult Day Program, approved by the Department of Developmental Services, which offers opportunities for adults with disabilities to learn new skills and participate in vocational and community-based activities. The Office of Parish & Community Support at the Center serves as a resource for members of parishes throughout the Diocese of Bridgeport.