Sign of the Times

Oct. 2-8, 2003
Sign of the Times
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Syracuse Deaf Community comes together to celebrate 55 years

St. Lucy’s Church was filled with joy and gladness as the celebration of the 55th anniversary of the Catholic Deaf Community of the Syracuse Diocese began. Old friends hugged each other in greeting last Saturday before the start of the anniversary Mass. The Society of the Catholic Deaf was formed in October 1948 at the request of Bishop Walter A. Foery, who recognized a need to include the deaf into the Catholic community. The first meeting was held in the rooms of the Catholic Women’s Club in Syracuse under the direction of Father Vincent J. Donovan, who was at that time, the assistant pastor of Our Lady of Solace Church. Thirty-five deaf people ranging from 20 to 86 years of age, attended that first meeting. Fifty-five years later, the Catholic Deaf Community of the Diocese of Syracuse strives to serve about 400 households with deaf members in the seven county area of the diocese.

Father Robert Dwyer, pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Bainbridge and St. Agnes Church in Afton, served the deaf community for over 25 years. Father Dwyer taught at the Rochester School of the Deaf when he was in the seminary. “It’s a great ministry,” said Father Dwyer. “Because the world of the deaf is a different culture that uses a different language, it’s a challenge for a hearing person to get into the world of the deaf.”

Mary Margaret Van Damme is the director of the Catholic Deaf Community and affirms Father Dwyer’s belief that the hearing world should continue to work toward welcoming and encouraging the deaf to share their gifts with the Catholic community. “The deaf can teach us so much,” said Van Damme. “They can do anything –– except hear. It’s important that they know that the church cares.”

Van Damme said that the deaf, like the hearing are individuals who need to know Jesus and it is the responsibility of the Catholic community to encourage them to participate. “Not just mine, but everyone’s,” said Van Damme. “The deaf ministry has come a long way. There are now deaf who lector, serve as Eucharistic ministers and ushers, are involved in youth ministry, help raise funds and food for the needy and assist in religious education programs.” “Hearing people thought that the deaf weren’t able to proclaim the word of the Lord,” said Father Peter Williams during his homily at St. Lucy’s. “But there are more and more deaf that are becoming teachers, proclaiming the word. There are more deaf priests and deacons, not only in the Episcopal Church, but also in the Catholic Church. Fifty years ago, the deaf were not allowed to be priests,” he said. “They, like any person with a disability, were thought to be unfit for ministry. Since the Second Vatican Council, the church now sees them as co-workers. What a wonderful gift from the Holy Spirit,” said Father Williams.

The first deaf priest to be ordained in the Catholic Church was a member of the Syracuse Diocese, said Father Williams. Father Thomas Coughlin who was from the Binghamton area was ordained in 1970. “We still have a long way to go,” said Van Damme. “There is a need for more signing priests, deaf catechists, deaf priests, more evangelizing and educating.” “Our goal is for the next director of the Catholic Deaf Community to be a deaf person,” said Father Williams. “In the early days, the hearing did things for the deaf. Now, more and more deaf are picking up responsibilities and bringing the good news to the people. They no longer need things done for them, but are becoming full participants in the life of the church,” he said.

At the end of the anniversary Mass, Father Williams thanked St. Lucy’s Parish for being the most consistent, loving, powerful ministry for the deaf in the diocese. “St. Lucy’s has made a home for the deaf community,” he said.

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