A ‘Very Special Day’ for People With Special Needs in Knoxville, Tennessee

In this first year of the event, there were 15 participants, ranging from the very young to age 36.

Bishop Richard Stika and participants in the inaugural ‘Bishop’s Very Special Day’
Bishop Richard Stika and participants in the inaugural ‘Bishop’s Very Special Day’ (photo: Gabrielle Nolan / Diocese of Knoxville)

The Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, held its first-ever “Bishop’s Very Special Day” on Saturday — an afternoon packed with fun activities, including movement and dance, arts and crafts, games and a parade around the cathedral.

Bishop Richard Stika, bishop of Knoxville, instituted the event, which concluded with a Mass and which was intended for children and adults with special needs and their families.

The event was not the first “special day” founded by Bishop Stika. When he was appointed head of the Knoxville diocese in 2009, he instituted a new day off for the kids which he termed “Bishop’s Day.” And now in 2021, he explained, his new “Very Special Day” gave him an opportunity to enjoy some time with children and adults who are unique and beautiful, even when they live with some intellectual and physical challenges. He added, “I will also enjoy being with their families, who give so much to those who just need a little extra.”

Bishop Stika said he had done some volunteer work while in seminary. Before coming to Knoxville, he had served as pastor of a parish in St. Louis which operated a school for special-needs children. But even before that, he had learned so much from his beloved great-niece Katie, who is autistic and who has a major chromosomal disorder. “She was never supposed to walk due to a connective tissue disorder,” he said. “We don't know what her lifespan will be. But she has taught so many people so much.” 

He reported that Katie had four siblings, and during their high school years, her siblings had many friends come to their house, where those friends experienced firsthand the family’s love as they interacted with Katie.

“People would leave that house,” he recalled, “knowing that if someone looks a little different or acts a little different, they're still human. They have capabilities and they have friendships. So when they see someone with limitations, they don't focus on the limitations — they focus on the person.” 

Although she had not been expected to walk, Katie has thrived with her family’s loving care. On the day Katie finally took her first steps, Bishop Stika recalled, several members of her family celebrated by having her name tattooed onto their skin.

In this first year of “The Bishop’s Very Special Day,” there were 15 participants, ranging from the very young to age 36. There was one young participant in a wheelchair. One young woman stood at the ambo and read the readings at Mass. The oldest was a man named Austin — a Baptist who had some friends who were Catholic, and who had told him about this event. 

Bishop Stika described the parade around the parking lot as especially fun, for the participants and for him. “So if you see someone with a cassock and with a big old drum around his neck,” he smiled, “that was me!” 

Although there were only 15 participants in this first year, Bishop Stika hoped that the event will attract larger numbers in the years ahead. He acknowledged that COVID-19 may have kept some away, but he hoped that by advertising the 2022 event earlier, they could attract more families from around the diocese.