When communicants from a front section of St. Richard Church came forward, Father Dan Kavanagh signed and spoke, “The Body of Christ.”
The people in that section also signed during the 11 a.m. Mass Aug. 11, following Father Kavanagh and an American Sign Language interpreter during parts of the Mass, such as the Our Father and the
Gloria. And Father Kavanagh signed during the homily given by Deacon John Bischof. The Mass was one element of a newly reformed ministry to deaf and hard of hearing Catholics.
Along with his new assignment as parochial administrator of St. Richard Parish in Creve Coeur, Father Kavanagh was named director of Catholic Deaf Ministry for the archdiocese. “This is an exciting opportunity to help build a central home in the archdiocese for deaf people to come and receive the sacraments and faith formation,” Father Kavanagh wrote in his parish bulletin. “We will also ensure that the sacraments are available to deaf people all across the archdiocese. This office is run through the archdiocese and is hosted here at St. Richard.”
Through an interpreter, several members of the deaf community expressed their appreciation. Paul Blicharz said the ministry is “important for us to connect with Jesus.”
John Ferrari is a graduate of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a barrier-free university for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. He attended a signed Mass for students there, a big plus for him since he grew up not understanding much of the Mass. He experienced a Catholic deaf ministry in the past, and when he moved to St. Louis was disappointed that it had lapsed.
He lives in Eureka, about a half hour away, but “it’s worth it to come here and feel part of a community,” he said.
Jack Morrow and Pam Diaz praised members of the parish who have been welcoming, helpful and inviting. Richard Jodlowski added that the former pastor, Father Phil Krill, was accommodating as well. Though the ministry didn’t exist at the parish under his leadership, a sign-language interpreter was present at the 11 a.m Mass on Sundays.
The new Catholic Deaf Ministry’s staff member, Al Alvord, coordinates programs and faith formation. Alvord thanked Archbishop Robert J. Carlson for his support of the Catholic deaf community and for recognizing the desire and need for a priest with signing skills and a knowledge of deaf culture. Until 2011, a priest from the former ministry offered signed Masses. Since then, deaf Catholics have attended eight churches in the archdiocese that provided sign-language interpreters, “which although is helpful, is not the same as when we can gather together for Mass,” Alvord remarked. “Many of us prefer to have a priest with signing skills for our Mass as well as a large group of deaf attending, like a family.”
Alvord explored a vocation as a priest or a deacon in the past, then felt called to enter the Ministry Formation Program in Chicago which trains deaf Catholics to become effective lay leaders. The archdiocese paid for the training. Alvord met with Archbishop Carlson afterward and they laid the foundation for the Catholic Deaf Ministry with the help of Father Kavanagh, who uses hearing aids and relates to deaf Catholics.
The Catholic Deaf Ministry, which receives funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal, focuses on education, preparation for people wanting to become Catholic, marriage prep and sacraments. It offers training for lectors, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and more. The ministry also will work with the Catholic Deaf Society, a social group, he said.
Father Kavanagh said he grew up struggling because “I could not hear enough of the homily to understand what was going on. Certainly a big mission of my priesthood is to make sure people have that connection with the sacraments, whether it’s helping them to hear what’s going on or helping them to learn more about the faith.”
Father Kavanagh already is hearing confessions through sign language. Some people drove from as far as House Springs to attend the inaugural Mass of the ministry on July 21. “It gave me goosebumps to think we’re truly building a community, a faith family for people who maybe felt a disconnect from the Church before,” Father Kavanagh said.
>> Deaf ministry in the archdiocese
Deaf ministry in the
archdiocese traces its roots to 1836, when Bishop Joseph Rosati invited
the Sisters of St. Joseph to St. Louis to teach children who are deaf.
The sisters’ ministry evolved into St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf.
Redemptorists at St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Parish had a deaf
ministry in place since 1937, establishing the St. Louis Catholic Deaf
Society in 1941. The Society, according to material in the archdiocese’s
archives, was an integral part of the archdiocese’s ministry to the
deaf. In 1966, construction was started on a Community Center for the
Deaf building adjacent to St. Alphonsus Parish in St. Louis. The
non-sectarian center was financed in part by a gift by Cardinal Joseph
Ritter from the Annual Expansion Fund.
In 1987, the Catholic
Commission for the Handicapped suggested an archdiocesan ministry for
the deaf. Archbishop John L. May created the Catholic Deaf Ministry
through Catholic Family Services with Father Jim Byrnes as director.
Soon after, the name of the non-sectarian center was changed to the
Catholic Center for the Deaf. The ministry provided retreats and events
for hearing-impaired Catholics, Masses in American Sign Language,
religious education for adults and children and sacramental preparation.
1994, the deaf ministry moved to St. Catherine of Sienna Parish, led at
the time by Father Vic Barnhart. The office moved locations several
more times over the years, and Archbishop Robert Carlson invited the
Dominican Missionaries of the Deaf Apostolate to oversee Catholic deaf
ministry in the archdiocese. They continued in service until 2015.
Father Dan Kavanagh spent a week at an intensive
Religious American Sign Language workshop in Rockford, Ill. The workshop
helps priests, seminarians and interpreters gain a better understanding
and fluency of ASL in the liturgy.
“I say it’s intense because we
aren’t allowed to speak this week, only sign; and as a beginner-signer,
it’s challenging,” Father Kavanagh wrote in the St. Richard Parish
bulletin. “I look forward to bringing back what I’ve learned and put it
to use at our 11 a.m. Mass on Sundays, with the goal of me signing
various parts of that Mass as I learn them.”