‘St. Robert Bellarmine Is My Patron Saint’

Doctor of the Church spiritually supports families of children with Down syndrome, thanks to apostolate.

L to R: Andrea Schanne and son Robby pose for a photo with Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut; St. Robert Bellarmine portrait, by unknown author, c. between 1622 and 1623
L to R: Andrea Schanne and son Robby pose for a photo with Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut; St. Robert Bellarmine portrait, by unknown author, c. between 1622 and 1623 (photo: Courtesy of the Schanne family; public domain)

In 2010, when Francis and Andrea Schanne were expecting a new baby boy, she learned the unborn child might have Down syndrome. She remembers leaving the hospital praying, “‘Lord, my husband and I, we’re just trying to be open to your will.’ And I felt in my heart the Lord was saying to me, ‘You are doing my will.’”

From the car she called her husband and told him the prognosis. “It’s going to be fine,” he assured. “We’ll be fine. We can do this.” She knew he was right. 

The farthest thing from their minds at the time was that their son would be the seed for the founding of the St. Robert Bellarmine Apostolate for parents and families with a child with Down syndrome. 

The next seed came as the Schannes were thinking of names for their new little boy — they already had one girl and four boys. Francis suggested “Robert” because Andrea’s grandfather, mother's brother and father’s brother were all named Robert. She looked in her book of saints, saw the entry for St. Robert Bellarmine, a cardinal and doctor of the Church, and discovered, as she recalled to the Register, “He’s patron saint of canon lawyers. My husband is a lawyer. And his feast day is Sept. 17; that’s my mother’s birthday. So we named him Robert, of course.”

Robert — called Robby — was born seven weeks early after an emergency C-section on Dec. 30. Their neonatologist, also named Robert, worked on Robby nine hours to stabilize him and told the Schannes their baby was “a fighter — he is so meant to be here.” Then came two open-heart surgeries before the child was 4 months old.

As Andrea prayed for Robby to Jesus and through the intercession of our Blessed Mother and St. Raphael the Archangel, she also searched for the patron saint for Down syndrome to seek his or her help. She found none. 

The thought came to her that maybe St. Robert Bellarmine should be the patron saint of those with Down syndrome. During prayer, she asked the Lord to give her some sign because she wanted to do God’s will.

The next day, Sunday, after 12 o’clock Mass at their parish in Delaware at the time, she was talking with friends when a young usher named Robert who had Down syndrome walked over — not something he usually did — to tell them it was his birthday. After wishing him “Happy Birthday,” he said, “Jesus and I talk all the time. I want you to know something. St. Robert Bellarmine is my patron saint.”

“I looked at my friend, she looked at me — and knew I’d been praying about this,” Andrea recalled. “Okay, Lord, I’ll take this as my sign,” she prayed. The late Father Leonard Klein assured her, “I would take that as a sign.”  

Andrea learned more about the saint and grew in devotion to him. She asked priests how saints get selected as a patron and they told her it was through prayer and word of mouth to become known to the faithful.

With Father Klein’s prompting, she asked the Holy Spirit to help her write a prayer for St. Robert’s intercession, and she was inspired to write three prayers: one for an expectant mother whose baby has Down syndrome, another for raising a child with Down syndrome, and the third for someone with Down syndrome to pray. 

In 2011, the next step was the celebration of the first-annual Mass on the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine for the intentions of individuals with Down syndrome, their families and friends. With the launch of the St. Robert Bellarmine Apostolate, this annual Mass is held on the closest Sunday to Sept. 17, the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine. 

Then, in 2012, Andrea was encouraged to launch SaintforDownSyndrome.org to make St. Robert Bellarmine's intercession and patronage for individuals with Down syndrome widely known. It defines the apostolate’s mission “to support and strengthen individuals with Down syndrome, their families and their caregivers through prayer” and to “entrust the St. Robert Bellarmine Apostolate to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus.”

A year later, when the family moved to Connecticut and joined St. Mary Church in Norwalk, they enrolled their children in Regina Pacis Academy on the campus. The pastor at the time, Father Greg Markey, encouraged and supported the apostolate with its MOMs+DADs (Mother of Mercy Spiritual Divine Advocate for Down Syndrome) prayer and support group. 

Father Markey also suggested they meet with the Bridgeport Diocese’s Bishop Frank Caggiano, who “gave us the imprimatur on all the prayers,” Andrea explained. The bishop recommended that “to get the word out” we have to “rotate parishes” for the annual Mass for people to hear about the apostolate. They followed his advice, and each year a different parish welcomes them. This year, the Sept. 17 Mass will be held at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Trumbull.

“Celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on St. Robert Bellarmine’s feast day renews our prayers to ask his intercession and guidance in this work of sacrificial love to protect and safeguard the lives of all those in our care,” Bishop Caggiano, who has celebrated one of the apostolate’s annual Masses, told the Register. “The yearly Mass is both the source of and summit of the mission of the apostolate, and it reminds us how much God loves those with Down syndrome, how dear they are to him, and their great worth to him and to us.”

He added that this apostolate “represents a profound witness of love and faith in the lives of individuals who have Down Syndrome, and for their friends and families. Not only is this prayerful apostolate a great blessing and source of support for all involved, it is also a spiritual gift to the entire diocese.”

Following the yearly Mass is an open-invitation reception, where the faithful can receive the apostolate’s prayers on prayer cards. “We try to get the word out as much as we can,” Andrea said. The families also do barbecues and other activities, such as a Holy Hour and procession last May, “which was beautiful with the families,” she recalled, adding that “the kids were wonderful … praying the Rosary. Talk about total, pure love. Our next goal is to do a whole year of reparation, and then just be together and help support each other, and pray with each other.” 

Father Markey, now head chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College’s New England campus, called the apostolate “an amazing testament to the joy of being a parent of a child with Down syndrome. It can be a challenge when a parent finds out that their child has Down syndrome. But the Schannes and this organization truly not only show the path of acceptance, but more than that, show the path of finding and embracing the joy that comes from having a child with Down syndrome and how much joy that child can bring to other people. That needs to be encouraged and cultivated.”

He underscored how the group, rooted in its prayer life and devotion to St. Robert Bellarmine, “is able to help parents reach not only the acceptance of having a child with Down syndrome, but the joy of embracing that gift of a child with Down syndrome.”

Andrea Schanne well remembers a woman who stumbled upon the new website, printed out the prayer of the woman expecting a child with Down syndrome, and then reached out to her. A few years later, in Connecticut, Andrea was surprised to meet the woman, who also moved there and happened to be looking into the same school the Schanne children were attending. When they met, Andrea said the woman recalled how she prayed that prayer every night, finding it “consoled” and “helped” during her pregnancy. 

Bishop Caggiano explained that the faithful pray for all those with Down syndrome “not simply because they are cherished by God and us, but because they have gifts to give to our community and to us — perhaps gifts that you and I don’t have: an innocence of heart, a generosity of spirit, a deep sense of gratitude for the little things that are done for them.”

This apostolate has brought together many families in faith and fellowship.

St. Robert Bellarmine Apostolate for parents and families with a child with Down syndrome
The St. Robert Bellarmine Apostolate shares joy.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Apostolate “regulars” include the Anthony and Jeanne DiProperzio family, with eight children, including 20-year-old Vincent and 15-year-old John Paul, who both have Down syndrome. The DiProperzios say that the St. Robert Bellarmine Apostolate “helps their family by providing community, prayer and support,” Jeanne told the Register. “Whenever we have a prayer request or question, the group always responds. We enjoy the annual St. Robert Bellarmine Mass and social and also the annual barbecue. These good events make life sweeter for us, and we are thankful.”  

Thanks extend to the diocesan level, too. Bishop Caggiano said, “I am most grateful for all those who bring their prayerful and personal support to this beautiful apostolate. They do so much to celebrate the value and dignity of every life, and in doing so, they lift up the larger community of faith in a most transformative and enduring way.”

The apostolate can help all families find the same joy. The Schannes’ hope and pray the apostolate will reach the hearts and souls of many people and encourage them to implore St. Robert Bellamine’s intercession as patron for individuals with Down syndrome.

As Andrea explained, “I feel so blessed, and all of our children, too. Their lives will never be the same because of Robby. And it’s really beautiful, these children with Down syndrome, how loving they are and how they make you change to be a better person.” 

For more information about the St. Robert Bellarmine Apostolate, contact:

Website: SaintforDownSyndrome.org

Email: [email protected]

or write: St. Robert Bellarmine Apostolate, P.O. Box 1115 Weston, CT 06883

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