This is the second in a series for Respect Life Month, which is observed annually in October. This year’s theme is “Faith opens our eyes to human life in all its grandeur and beauty.” As Pope Benedict XVI said during his recent apostolic visit to Lebanon, “The grandeur and the raison d’être of each person are found in God alone.”
By Celine Klosterman
TIFFIN — Matt Wellendorf’s favorite prayer is the Chaplet of Divine Mercy in song. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist at Mass, he becomes reverent. And he won’t go to sleep before his mother prays with him.
Despite a chromosomal abnormality that left him unable to walk or talk, the 27-year-old has a sense of spirituality, said his parents, David and Regina Wellendorf.
Most people think those with developmental or mental disabilities have no faith life because they can’t understand religion, David said. “But they’re human beings.”
Members of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City, he and his wife have worked to help Matt encounter the richness of Catholicism and enjoy other life experiences that people without disabilities do.
Matt attends Mass at St. Wenceslaus and belongs to the Knights of Columbus there. With help, he played Little League baseball as a child. And he graduated from Clear Creek Amana High School at age 21.
Such accomplishments are especially significant to parents who weren’t sure what he’d be able to do when he was born Oct. 11, 1985.
“We could see he didn’t look quite right,” said Regina, already a mother to 7-year-old Allisa and 4-year-old Nathan, neither of whom have disabilities.
Matt’s feet were turned inward. His chin was receded and his ears were set low. He didn’t eat right. As he grew, he seemed oblivious to his parents’ presence, and they suspected he couldn’t hear.
Three months after his birth, a DNA test showed there was too much material on his eighth chromosome. But that knowledge didn’t answer the most important question the Wellendorfs had.
“We were asking, who can tell us what to do? Where can we get help? No one could answer us,” Regina said.
Then living in Boone, they finally heard about a local Area Education Agency six months after Matt’s birth. The agency later began providing some in-home therapy, Regina recalled.
Despite the assistance, she realized he wouldn’t make some milestones — such as dating or receiving the sacrament of confirmation. But David focused on the present. “Just don’t hurt him,” the father said.
A parents’ education panel helped him understand family members react differently to discovering a child has special needs.
But David and Regina agreed on the importance of faith in Matt’s life. The baby was baptized in a quickly arranged ceremony before he underwent surgery on a hernia. When Matt was less than a year old, his mother took him to Des Moines for a healing service that a priest from out of state was celebrating in the city.
At the service, she prayed her son would at least receive the ability to hear music. “We’ve been told he’s profoundly deaf,” she said. Scans from childhood show that nerves required for hearing are missing from his brain stem.
Yet today he responds with vocalizations to music, especially Catholic hymns, his parents said.
Matt enjoys listening to them while watching televised Masses on the Catholic cable TV network EWTN. Seeing the Liturgy of the Eucharist has a special effect on him, Regina said. “He could be antsy, but gets giggly when the Eucharist comes on TV because he knows what it is.”
Other highlights of his days include visits from his four nieces and nephews, Nathan’s children, who live in North Liberty. Matt also appreciates visits from Allisa, a physical therapist in Virginia. “He just loves being with family,” Regina said.
He lives with his parents at their Tiffin home. Both spouses work – Regina as a nurse in the operating room at Mercy Iowa City, and David as volunteer coordinator for Table to Table in Iowa City. So representatives of The Arc of Southeast Iowa help care for Matt during the day.
David and Regina acknowledged the challenges of caring for their youngest child. There are limits on where and for how long the family can travel – Matt can sit for only two-and-a-half hours at time. He needs help eating, and isn’t always agreeable to exercising with a walker.
His parent’s selflessness in caring for him is a model for others, said David Fetzer, a member of the Knights of Columbus at St. Wenceslaus. “Without a second thought, David and Regina exclude themselves from many things that you and I consider normal, because if Matthew cannot participate, neither do they. They devote their lives to their children, and thus their family is very close and happy!”
Fetzer said they inspire St. Wenceslaus, which in turn has supported the Wellendorfs. A parishioner once stayed overnight with Matt when his parents weren’t available. During coffee and doughnuts after Mass, Catholics talk to him. “He loves that fellowship,” David said. And Father Mike Phillips, pastor, has shown Matt such kindness, Regina said.
“The parish has been great. Part of the reason we go there is because they made a handicapped entrance” that accommodates Matt’s wheelchair, David said. The church added a west entrance with an elevator, handicapped-accessible restrooms and a new, wider wheelchair ramp in 2007.
Such accommodations reflect Catholics’ responsibility to people in need. “Without people to care for, how can you exercise your humanity?” David asked.