Nicole Johnson offers a thank you of sorts to an earthly angel who has blessed the life of their daughter who has Down syndrome.
His name is Fred. If it’s a Sunday, chances are 99.99% that you will find him at Saint Michael’s Parish serving Mass - three of them at a minimum. Sometimes four, if he’s needed, and this usually follows Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning Mass. He is the one in the suit and tie: the perfectly tailored, immaculately pressed suit and tie.
Rumor has it, if you catch him around town, you’ll find him in something much more casual, shorts and a t-shirt paired with sandals perhaps. I’ve even heard rumblings that he has a tattoo, though I’m not inclined to believe such outlandish claims about this man I know only as “the suited servant of God.”
I watched him for years on the altar before our lives crossed in a most unexpected way. Admittedly, I’m one of those parishioners who often falls victim to my mind wandering a bit during various parts of the Mass. More than once, I wondered who kept this guy so well put together. Did he press his own clothes? Exactly how many suits did he own? Past military, perhaps? Being that the iron only makes an appearance in my house a few times a year, I concluded, if it is his wife readying his suits each week, she must be well on her way to earning her wings.
Fast forward a few years. I was at work one morning when a text message came through from my close friend who was hanging with my daughter Mary for the day. I opened the message to find a picture of my little one dressed as an altar server. I knew my friend was taking her to daily Mass, but never imagined they would use the opportunity to play dress up! Come to find out, much to my shock and awe, my feisty little extra-chromosome-carrying-9-year-old was not playing: she actually helped to serve the Mass. And so began a journey that I’d never have thought to set her on, paired with an unlikely friendship for our little lady that we are most grateful for.
The adventure of raising a child with Down syndrome is never boring and is littered with the unexpected. In fact, after 11 years, I’ve come to expect nothing less than the unexpected. I’ve also learned, and am reminded on a daily basis, that I am not enough. Really. I do not have all it takes for my daughter to grow into her best self. While this is probably true on some level for any parent and child, it is a truth that has never been before me with such frustrating clarity as it is with Mary. It is a tough reality to sit with from time to time, yet there is such beauty in the acceptance of this truth, as God continually places amazing people in her life who are a gift in the most needed ways. They fill a void I never knew existed.
Enter Fred to the stage. Or, in this case, the altar. He is a Franciscan: a lay person with the vocation of evangelization. To Mary, he’s just Fred. He’s the nice guy who helps her know where to go and what to do when on the altar. To me and my family, he’s the guy who saw capability in our daughter where we held reservations and “I’m-not-sure-she-cans.” He’s the guy who took Mary under his wing without all the preconceived misconceptions so many have about people with Down syndrome. I guess, most simply, he’s the guy who sees our daughter as Jesus does. What greater gift can a parent ask for?
I’d be lying if I said Fred’s confidence in Mary is completely comfortable for me. Perhaps the best example brings us to a Saturday morning Mass a few months ago. Mary had gone to church with my friend, and my husband and I stayed home, promising to tune in on the live stream (and relishing the quiet coffee time to ourselves). We tuned in a few minutes before Mass was starting, so things were quiet on the altar. All of a sudden, we saw Fred walk out of the sacristy with Mary right on his heels. She was carrying the long, heavy brass candle lighter that stretched a good twenty-four inches out from her tiny hands and, from our vantage point anyway, the flame looked to be about twenty-four millimeters from the back of Fred’s suit coat.
We both jumped up from the couch and started yelling to Fred as if he might hear us. “What are you doing?!” “Fred! Do not turn your back to her while she’s carrying an open flame!” “Who gave that thing to her anyway?!” "Turn around, Fred! Turn around!” We literally held our breath as he calmly led her around the altar, lighting each candle, while she nearly burst with excitement and pride.
It didn’t take Fred long to learn of my nerves and now, well, he’s just having fun with it. There is no job he doesn’t trust Mary to do. The large carafe of red wine? Let’s give it to Mary to carry while she navigates the steps up to the altar! The three-foot candle that is half her body weight? Yup! Mary will carry that as we process around the church, up the steps and back into the sacristy. No question: the joy and pride in this girl’s face is intoxicating. The fear all over my own and my husband’s face is, I think, just a fun bonus for Fred.
All kidding aside, the truth is we are deeply touched by Fred’s patience with Mary and are so grateful for the way he immediately welcomed her into a role we might not have considered for her otherwise. It is such a beautiful testament to how Jesus sees this precious child of ours: Loved. Worthy. Enough.
Fred is so dedicated to bringing children into the fold and training them as altar servers. He has, quite literally, answered Jesus’ command from Matthew 19:14: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And to that end, I imagine God would say, “Well done, good and faithful (and perfectly suited) servant” (Matthew 25:21).
Copyright 2021 Nicole Johnson
Images copyright 2021 Nicole Johnson, all rights reserved.
About the Author
Nicole and her husband have been blessed with three children. Nicole markets the mission of a non-profit that provides early therapies for children diagnosed with developmental delays. She and her husband serve on the board for the New England chapter of Bethany Christian Services, a national adoption agency. Nicole's family advocates for life, adoption, and embracing children with special needs. Visit her blog at Joy in the Journey.