Girl with Rare Disorder Barred From Communion

March 27, 2005 — -- Like many Catholic children, Haley Pelly-Waldman, 9, had looked forward to her first Holy Communion. It is a sacred rite of passage for all young Catholics, steeped in tradition and meaning.

Catholics believe the wine and the wafer symbolize the body and blood of Christ. When it was Haley's turn to experience her first communion, she donned a special white dress for the occasion, ready to participate in the ritual that unites Catholics around the world. But for Haley there was a difference.

Four years ago, the New Jersey girl was diagnosed with a rare digestive disorder called celiac disease, leaving her unable to eat wheat -- not even the tiny amount in the wafer at the communion table.

In order to accommodate Haley's medical condition, her priest substituted the wheat wafer with one made of rice. But little did they know, they'd just broken a church doctrine.

First Communion Doesn't Count, Says Diocese

The Pelly-Waldmans local diocese said that the eucharist wafer can only be made of wheat.

In a statement released to ABC News, the Diocese of Trenton, said, "Bread, to be valid matter for the eucharist, must be made solely of wheat."

The local diocese ruled that Haley's first communion didn't count, and reprimanded the priest who gave her that rice wafer.

Stunned by that ruling, Haley's mother, Elizabeth Pelly-Waldman, decided to challenge the church law by appealing to the Vatican.

"I am one woman questioning 2,000 years of church teaching," Pelly-Waldman said on "Good Morning America" today. "But I believe with some patience and persistence maybe perhaps we can be heard."

In her letters to the Vatican, she wrote: "It's not my understanding that Christ asked his disciples to remember him through wheat bread. … I do not believe Christ would want a child to obey a canon law that could be potentially harmful to her."

Controversy Strengthens Faith

Until recently, the Pelly-Waldmans found a priest who was willing to administer a rice communion wafer to Haley in secret. But with the publicity of the case growing, Elizabeth says that is becoming more difficult.

Haley told "Good Morning America" that when it comes time to take communion, "I usually just kneel down and say my prayers."

Other celiacs have dealt with similiar issues in the Catholic Church, driving one Boston family to join the Methodist Church, which does allow rice wafers during communion.

But Pelly-Waldman says she has no intention of leaving the church, and in fact, the controversy has strengthened her faith.

"I'm a practicing Catholic, and the faith of both myself and the children in the Catholic Church hasn't wavered," she said. "I belived we can most appropriately effectuate change from within the church."

The Pelly-Waldmans have so far not received a reply from the Vatican.