St. Catherine Center celebrates 20th anniversary

FAIRFIELD—More than 325 people gathered Sunday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs, which Bishop Frank J. Caggiano praised as being “at the very heart of the mission of the Church.”

Four individuals were honored for their volunteerism, leadership and partnership at the 20th Anniversary “Joy and Gratitude Dinner” held at Fairfield University.

“Let me be very clear,” Bishop Caggiano said. “Saint Catherine Center for Special Needs is at the very heart of the mission of the Church, for if there was one thing that characterized Our Lord’s ministry, it was that he always stood by those who were vulnerable and in need—those who the world would perhaps not want to serve.”

The bishop expressed his gratitude to donors, the staff, volunteers and the board, which he described as “the first of the pioneers to take on the real fiduciary responsibility of running the center, and they have done it with tremendous excellence and dedication and generosity and cooperation.”

He praised Charles Chiusano, who has been chairman for 12 years, and said, “You have done a marvelous job.”

He also singled out Executive Director Helen Burland and said, “It takes a remarkable person to keep a vision clear, alive and moving forward, and all the great things that happened over the past few years, in particular the expansion into the adult program, would not have been possible without you.”

He told her, “Everyone in these rooms is deeply indebted to you, but I am especially indebted to you for being a woman of faith, of vision, of tenacious leadership and of love for everyone under your care and every young child and adult entrusted to you.” Burland received a sustained standing ovation from the guests.

Photos by Amy Mortensen

In her comments, Ms. Burland recalled the founding of the center under then-Bishop Edward Egan and said, “Many people who are in this room tonight embraced the vision to create a faith-based education program that would welcome children whose learning needs were special. I stand before you proud to say that Saint Catherine Center is a vibrant, joyful mission committed to working with people with disabilities and their families….Beginning with the belief that all life is valued, we work to provide for God’s most vulnerable individuals.”

Saint Catherine Center is home to Saint Catherine Academy, a private special education school that offers an alternative program to children ages 5-21. In 2014, an adult day program was created to offer an alternative for young people who had completed their formal education but still needed a structured, supervised environment. In addition, the center supports services throughout the diocese to assist parishes and schools in welcoming people with disabilities to be full participants in their communities, Ms. Burland said.

She also expressed her gratitude to “our families, a very dedicated board, a talented and devoted staff, organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Order of Malta, numerous volunteers and generous donors.”

More than 40 children and young adults receive daily programming, and Ms. Burland recalled the successes she witnessed over the past year: “Over the course of the year, they have taught us how to speak without words, how to better define what success is, how to overcome the fear of water, how to cook in our kitchen, how to dance with joy and, most importantly, they taught us how to look beyond ourselves. To walk with them, we have conquered many obstacles this year, some serious health scares and some family tragedies. Saint Catherine Center is a place of consolation, peace and healing for all who are touched by our mission.”

Charles Chiusano recognized the honorees: the late Jim O’Brien, who was given the Volunteer Service Award and was represented by Kathy O’Brien Porter; Marie and Sal Gilbertie, who received the Community Partnership Service Award; and Dian Jennings Mayo, who was given the Leadership Award.

Jim O’Brien, one of Saint Catherine Academy’s first board members, was known as a “guy who quietly went about getting things done.” His expertise from a lifelong career and family business in lumber helped the construction of the center’s current facility adjacent to Holy Cross Church in Fairfield.

Dian Jennings Mayo of Redding Ridge was recognized for her dedication and early influence in the establishment of the academy. In 1996, inspired by the needs of her older brother with disabilities, Mayo wrote a letter to then-Bishop Egan to express a “long-held dream” of hers to create a diocesan fund earmarked for special education of the adult population. That dream eventually became Saint Catherine Academy.

Marie and Sal Gilbertie, owners of Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens, received the Community Partnership Award for their long association with the center as a vocational worksite. Each week students and adults from the center work at the wholesale garden center in Easton, sorting and stacking planting pots.

(For more information about the center and its programs, visit the website at, call 203.540.5381, or email