Catholic deaf ministry seeks to rekindle spirits and boost presence

Catholic deaf ministry seeks to rekindle spirits and boost presence

OCTOBER 05, 2011

By Jennifer Brinker | [email protected]

Rose Flynn-Wekenborg, right, and her mother Rose Rehagen, center, signed in
unison as her brother Jim Rehagen, left, and other congregants signed a hymn
during Mass at St. Andrew Parish in Lemay Oct. 2. The parish hosts a Mass
that offers enhanced translation in American sign language and expanded
emphasis on meeting the needs of the hearing impaired. Rose Rehagen is deaf,
although her five children can hear, according to her daughter
Flynn-Wekenborg. Sid Hastings (inside picture box on website; see link

Before Monica Niemira was born in the 1960s, her mother, who had suffered
from a case of Ruebella during her pregnancy, knew that something was going
to happen to the baby she was carrying.

Monica was born deaf. As a child, she went to Central Institute for the
Deaf, where she learned to speak and read lips and received her education.
It wasn’t until she was in college that Niemira learned sign language.

Raised in a Catholic family, Niemira said that her experience at Mass made
her feel “lost and left out” — that was, until she learned sign language
and more about the deaf culture.

In an email, Niemira explained that during the signed Mass “my spirit
rekindled and felt more alive,” adding that she had “not felt that way
before.”She soon became involved in the Catholic deaf community in St. Louis
and currently serves as president of the St. Louis chapter of the Catholic
Deaf Society.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis also has a formal Catholic Deaf Ministry,
overseen by the archdiocesan Office of Apostolic Services. In recent years,
the ministry has undergone a change in leadership. Invited here last year by
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, two religious brothers from the Dominican
Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate have been charged with leading the
ministry and are in the process of assessing the current state of deaf
ministry in the archdiocese.

One of those leaders, Brother Joseph Thermadom, a native of India who was
born deaf, explained: “We need God’s help in order to redevelop the ministry
of our Catholic deaf community.”

In addition to working to boost deaf ministry here, part of the work also
involves educating the Catholic hearing community about the needs of
individuals who are deaf. Niemira explained: “We are trying to let the
hearing people know that we, the deaf, are hungry to hear God’s words … We
want to be included with our families, friends and Church.”

Dominicans in St. Louis

Based in San Antonio, Texas, the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf
Apostolate was founded in 2004 by Father Thomas Coughlin as a community for
deaf, hard of hearing and hearing men who “endeavor to preach the Word of
Christ” via American Sign Language.

Last year, four brothers and one priest from the community established a
home in Madison, Ill., with the intent of sending the brothers to nearby
Aquinas Institute of Theology for formation and priesthood studies. Earlier
this spring, Archbishop Carlson contacted the community seeking assistance
after Father Victor Barnhart, previous director of the archdiocese’s
Catholic Deaf Ministry, took a leave of absence.

The ministry currently is based at St. Andrew Parish in Lemay, where Brother
Adam Zawadzki, along with a small group of interpreters, offer an
interpreted Mass every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. The team also provides
interpreting services for other Masses, including Holy Days of Obligation
and Opportunity, and part, if not all, of the Triduum during Holy Week.

Growing the ministry

Several other parishes in the archdiocese also offer interpreted Masses for
the deaf. Most are held every week as part of the each parish’s regular
schedule, and some parishes offer the service on a limited basis. (See
related story.) Brother Adam noted that he is in the process of reaching out
to those parishes to assess the needs and to see what other services can be
offered. He’s already contacted interpreters, for example, to discuss the
planned English translations of the Roman Missal, Third edition, which
begins in parishes Nov. 27.

Besides the liturgy, Brother Adam said another important aspect of deaf
ministry is providing catechesis and social opportunities. At St. Andrew,
for example, the deaf community has a social every week after the 10:30 a.m.
Mass. Brother Joseph oversees a frequent Bible study at the parish, and
there are other social activities there during the year, including a trivia
night and interpreting services at the fish fry. Brother Joseph, along with
Sister Maureen Langton, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, make regular
visits to the sick and homebound through the Home Care Services program.

One of the challenges for the deaf ministry is discovering the scope of who
they are serving, said Brother Adam.

“In a way, we don’t know how many people there are,” he said. “It’s kind of
like trying to minister to a ghost or an invisible man. You can’t offer
something to them if you can’t see them.”

That means the brothers, in between their studies at Aquinas, are making
attempts to get out into the community and attending events for deaf people.
“We’re telling them where the interpreted (Masses) are, inviting people back
to church. We’re doing this kind of evangelization, really.”

Brother Adam also recently connected with the Office of Apostolic Services
to organize a marriage preparation program for deaf Catholics. Apostolic
Services executive director George Kerry said he was grateful for the
opportunity, adding that “our office wishes to have a closer relationship
with the deaf ministry. They deserve the best service we can possibly give

Catholic Deaf Society

The deaf ministry also is relying on the help of the St. Louis Catholic Deaf
Society, which was formed in 1941 to help develop the Catholic deaf
community in St. Louis. The society currently has about 50 members,
according to president Monica Niemira. The organization is part of the
International Catholic Deaf Associationa. Brother Joseph recently was
appointed the organization’s moderator.

Niemira, who became involved with the society in 1989, noted that its role
is to meet the needs of the local Catholic deaf community, including
spiritual and social needs. It has an annual open board meeting, which
everyone is invited to attend. The society also connects with other states
around the nation to share ideas and resources.

Brother Joseph said his community is thankful to the society for its support
of Catholic deaf ministry in the archdiocese. “We’re really trying to set up
a working relationship that is ongoing in the future.”

Niemira said she became involved with the deaf community “because I wanted
to serve others. … I still try to find ways to spread the word about the
Catholic Deaf Ministry and Catholic Deaf Society. I wake up and thank God
for the wonderful gift He has for me and my life.”

For more information on Catholic Deaf Ministry, email Brother Adam at
[email protected].

Masses for the Deaf

The following parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis offer interpreted
Masses for the Catholic deaf community. Masses are offered every week,
unless otherwise noted:Assumption, 4725 Mattis Road in Mattese, 10:30 a.m.

Holy Infant, 627 Dennison Drive in Ballwin, 10:15 a.m. every other Sunday
(next Mass will be Oct. 9);

Our Lady of the Pillar, 403 S. Lindbergh Blvd. in Creve Coeur, 8:30 a.m.

Our Lady of the Presentation, 8860 Tudor Ave. in Overland, 5 p.m. Saturday;

St. Andrew, 309 Hoffmeister Ave. in Lemay, 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Readings are
signed every other Sunday (next Mass will be Oct. 16);

St. Francis of Assisi, 4556 Telegraph Road in Oakville; 9 a.m. second and
fourth Sunday of the month (next mass is Oct. 9);

St. Joseph, 1355 Motherhead Road in Cottleville, 10:30 a.m. Sunday.


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