Finding beauty and healing among the saints
Sister Nuala Ryan's shoes are wet with dew when she walks into the rec center. The place isn't much to look at, all cinder-block walls, dusty curtains, a deflated balloon that's been hanging from a ceiling vent for as long as anyone can remember. Church services will begin soon, right here. There is much to be done.

The service linen must be draped over the altar. Someone must fetch the box of miniature New Testaments from the back. Someone has dropped off four pretty sprigs from a bottlebrush tree; they'll need to be dropped into little vases.

There are volunteers, local high school students spending their first day at Lanterman Developmental Center in Pomona. Be careful with the residents, Ryan tells the students. Many cannot move on their own. Their bones are weak; their muscles have atrophied. But don't be afraid. "Let go of that," she tells them.

Soon, the congregation arrives, 60 people, most in wheelchairs, most getting on in years, most with the mental ability of a small child. One asks Ryan, for the umpteenth time, to sign her autograph book. Ryan smiles kindly: "Thank you for asking."

Another struggles to put on a tunic. Ryan watches him for a full minute.

"Would you like help?" she asks, finally. "Yeah," he says.

"Comfortable?" "Yeah."

"You look handsome." "Yeah."

A priest once asked her not how she does it, but why -- for 23 years, when she could have been elsewhere, when much of her flock cannot pray, or dance or sing. Where else, she asked him, could she walk each day among saints?

Hidden away in rolling hills between Diamond Bar and San Dimas, Lanterman is one of California's oldest institutions for the developmentally disabled. It has been around since 1927, long enough for its residents to be called "imbeciles," then "inmates," then "patients," then "clients" -- mirroring the nation's efforts to devise increasingly dignified and sophisticated methods of caring for people with severe disabilities.

The newest model is community care, with more individualized treatment in smaller settings. The large institutions are being shut down, slowly and deliberately.

The challenges haven't changed; 70% of the clients, suffering from cerebral palsy and from severe forms of autism and epilepsy, have an IQ below 14. It's the size of the population that has changed; Lanterman, which had nearly 3,000 clients at its peak, has fewer than 500.

It will be years before Lanterman closes, but some long-term staffers have started to step down. In two weeks, Ryan will too. She is retiring, at 75, after nearly a quarter-century of service as a music therapist and, for the last 11 years, Roman Catholic chaplain.

Ryan is known on campus for putting together touching memorial services for clients. Deaths happen with some regularity, and she loves doing the services because she views them as a celebration of sorts, a glorious moment when clients are freed of a body that had imprisoned them.

Ed Bischof, a Lanterman psychologist, said he was floored when he attended one of Ryan's recent memorials. The client, Bischof said, had been blind and unable to speak for years, and had spent most of his time in a chair. After his death, however, Ryan researched his life with the fervor of a biographer, and at the service, she managed to paint a surprisingly complex and charming portrait of him.

It turned out that years ago, before he went blind, he'd been impish and playful. One of his favorite tricks, the small crowd learned, was to remove the screws from people's chairs, sending his victims tumbling to the ground.

"Clients feel a sense of belonging, and the staff feel more attached to the clients than they actually admit to themselves," Bischof said. "When clients pass, she's able to draw that feeling out. It gives a great crescendo to people's lives."

There are scores of people who, like the priest, like Bischof, cannot understand how Ryan has summoned the strength, day in, day out.

When one client struggled to participate in music class because he'd suffered neurological damage, she tied a string of shells around his foot, the one part of his body he could still move voluntarily.