As Mass drew to an end on Dec. 3, April Mason-Donovan came to the lectern to lead the closing song.
Instead of singing the words, she signed them. The praise came through just as loud.
More than 60 people crowded together that morning for the weekly Mass celebrated in American Sign Language (ASL) inside a chapel in St. Richard Church’s parish center in Creve Coeur, the headquarters of the archdiocesan Catholic Deaf Ministry.
Catholic Deaf Ministry is an office of the Archdiocese of St. Louis that coordinates pastoral outreach, faith formation, sacramental and chaplaincy services to Deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics and their families. It is supported by the Annual Catholic Appeal.
April, who is Deaf, moved back to St. Louis about two years ago after living for several years in Jefferson City, where there were no Masses in ASL, she said through an interpreter.
“I just love it here — this is my family, and my Church. It’s my passion,” April said. “I’m so close to God, through this ministry and this family.”
Father Dan Kavanagh, the director and chaplain of Catholic Deaf Ministry, has celebrated the weekly ASL Mass since 2021. Father Kavanagh became director of the ministry when it was reformed in 2019; at that time, he and other interpreters offered ASL interpretation at Masses at St. Richard and a handful of other churches.
As he talked with different Deaf Catholics, “I said I’d be willing to drive to different places to do a signed Mass in different parts of the archdiocese,” Father Kavanagh said. “But overwhelmingly, they said, no, they’d rather all come together to celebrate Mass, do social events together, faith formation together.”
Al Alvord, coordinator of Catholic Deaf Ministry, works alongside Father Kavanagh to coordinate programs and faith formation. Alvord was born Deaf and felt God’s call to enter the Ministry Formation Program in Chicago, which trains Deaf Catholics to become effective lay leaders. He also helped Father Kavanagh brush up on his ASL.
The ministry offers a monthly Bible study for the Deaf community, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), sacramental preparation for children and visits to Deaf Catholics who are homebound. The Catholic Deaf Society works with the ministry to host social events, including movie nights with closed captions and an annual Christmas lunch.
“And we’re typical good Catholics, so once a month, we do coffee and donuts,” Father Kavanagh said with a laugh.
Father Kavanagh is especially glad to be able to provide for the sacramental needs of the faithful in an easily accessible way, he said. For example, without a priest who knows ASL, a lot of Deaf or hard-of-hearing Catholics would have to bring an interpreter into the confessional or go through the trouble of explaining the situation through writing to the priest.
“So it really lacked that personal relationship with the priest, who’s acting in the person of Christ in the sacrament,” he said. “I’m able to meet them where they’re at, and spend time just doing some good pastoral counseling and faith formation through that, too.”
Father Kavanagh also noted that not every person who is Deaf or hard of hearing uses sign language. “A lot of them might be more oral or use lip-reading. I’m here to minister to them, as well,” he said. “I’ve had people reach out to me who don’t necessarily come to Mass with us on Sunday because they don’t sign, but they’ll come to me for pastoral counseling or sacraments. So even though they don’t sign, it’s being able to go to a priest that understands the importance of just speaking clearly and slowly, allowing them to lip read and ask questions and things like that.”
Second-grader Kallie Sommer was all smiles after Mass on Dec. 3. Earlier that morning, she made her first reconciliation, receiving the sacrament from Father Kavanagh in ASL.
Through an ASL interpreter, Kallie said she likes talking about Jesus with Father Kavanagh when he comes to her house each month for PSR class. They talked about sin in the months leading up to her first reconciliation, and she likes learning how to pray.
With Father Kavanagh’s help, Kallie “actually understands the sacrament,” said her father, Adam Sommer.
The Sommer family — parents Adam and Katrina and four children, including Kallie — typically alternates between ASL Mass at St. Richard and English Mass at their home parish, St. Mary Magdalen in Brentwood. At a non-interpreted Mass, Kallie misses out on a lot; at ASL Mass at St. Richard, “she gets the Catholic Mass that we get,” Katrina said. “Being able to support her in her faith as a family is just really cool.”
The Sommers are grateful for the way Catholic Deaf Ministry helps spread the Gospel and bring Deaf people like Kallie into the full life of the Church. “Thinking about evangelization — this is it,” Adam said.
Catholic Deaf Ministry
Catholic Deaf Ministry is an office of the Archdiocese of St. Louis that coordinates pastoral outreach, faith formation, sacramental and chaplaincy servies to Deaf and hard of hearing Catholics and their families.
Father Dan Kavanagh celebrates Mass in American Sign Language at 10:30 a.m. each Sunday in a chapel at St. Richard Church parish center, 11223 Schuetz Road in Creve Coeur.
ASL interpretation is also provided at 11 a.m. Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Sorrows Church, 5020 Rhodes Ave. in south St. Louis.
To learn more about Catholic Deaf Ministry, visit stlcatholicdeaf.org.