Twenty years ago, Pat Hammeke and his wife faced a situation any parents would find daunting. With the birth of their son Brendan, the Arlington, Va., couple learned that not one but two of their children suffered from Down syndrome. As experience had already taught them with Brendan's older sister Casey, this meant a lifetime commitment of helping their children overcome mental and developmental challenges. Devout Catholics, the Hammekes accepted the challenge and eagerly welcomed these children into their family. They resolved to provide their special children with a lifetime of love and good parenting. Nevertheless, the young couple still found the situation overwhelming.
Where To Go Within the Catholic Community?
Where do we turn for assistance within the wider Catholic community? How do we include our children in social functions? Do other Catholic parents understand our situation? These questions trouble many parents of the mentally and developmentally challenged. Fortunately, one Sunday morning God provided Pat with an answer. It came after Mass, through the International Order of Alhambra. “We met one of the Alhambra's members at their annual church-door collection,” Pat recalls. “He saw our two children with Down syndrome and was interested in our experiences.”
The Hammekes soon learned that the Alhambra's interest went beyond casual conversation. The International Order of Alhambra is a Catholic fraternal organization dedicated to serving the needs of the mentally and developmentally challenged. Based in Baltimore, the organization has 120 active caravans (chapters) with 5,500 members in the United States and Canada. The Alhambra finances homes for the developmentally challenged and provides scholarships for special-education teachers. The group also assists families of the developmentally challenged and, for the last 18 years, has assisted the Hammekes with meeting the exceptional needs faced by parents of special children. Not all such needs are financial. For example, special-needs children often lack a safe social environment within a Catholic context.
This did not go unnoticed by the Hammekes, both of whom appreciate the hands-on approach taken by the Alhambra in carrying out its mission. “The Alhambra put us in touch with other Catholics who love to help people with mental challenges,” explains Pat. “Casey and Brendan both enjoy being part of the Alhambra. They enjoy helping with our local caravan's social and charity events. It gives them a good sense of accomplishment.”
The Kingdom Is Theirs
Roger Reid is a past supreme commander of the Alhambra as well is the organization’s current executive secretary. In carrying out the Alhambra’s apostolate, he strongly promotes the practice of personal interaction between the membership and God’s special children. “Jesus is clear,” Reid says. “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
“Interacting with God’s special people provides Alhambrans with an inner peace that suggests that whatever we do for any of God's special people, we do for him,” Reid says. “I cannot begin to express the spiritual satisfaction I feel when I ease their burdens, make them happy and show them the same Christian love that they have for me. Their simplicity is rewarding.”
Yet, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Reid makes one thing clear to all potential members — the organization's service to God's special children is carried out within the context of the Alhambra's Catholic identity. “Our Catholic identity is essential,” he says. “We follow the example of popes and saints, particularly our patron St. Francis of Assisi.”
“In the 13th century St. Francis gave the Church a heartbeat that is still heard today. He humbled himself by feeding the poor, caring for the lepers and preaching the word of God through his example. Alhambrans are called to assist the developmentally disabled within the broader context of our Catholic community. So who better to teach us than St. Francis?”
Fraternally, St. Francis
At 83 years of age. Bill Fuchs' zeal for the Alhambra's patron shows no sign of diminishing. “St. Francis of Assisi’s life and teachings provide a model for us to follow in carrying out our work,” Fuchs says. “His prayer, often recited through out the order, is a pillar of strength and gives direction to all members in contributing to our parishes.”
This brings to light another important facet of the Alhambra's work — service to the local parish. Marvin Peschel, Florida Regional Director of the Alhambra, puts it bluntly: “Our priests know that when Alhambrans promise something, it’s a promise kept.” Father Simon, the parochial vicar of the parish hosting Peschel’s caravan, supports this claim. “Alhambra forms an important part of our parish community,” says the retired Carmelite priest. “When there is work to be done or events to be organized, I can depend upon the Alhambra's support.”
Membership in the Alhambra is open to all Catholic men 18 and older. Women are invited to join the Sultanas, which is the women’s auxiliary. One need not have developmentally challenged family members to join. But, of course, God’s special children are invited to join as well. In fact, Brendan Hammeke is now a full member of the fraternal organization. “The Alhambra is fun,” he says with a smile. “I like helping others and doing adult things.”
For more information on the International Order of Alhambra, please visit their website or call 1-800-478-2946
Pete Vere is a Catholic writer and canon lawyer who takes an active interest in promoting the canonical rights of the mentally and developmentally challenged. He writes from Nokomis, Florida, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.